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WHEN DARCY Person took over Nielsen's Authentic Danish Pastries in September of 1999, she already had a lot of "ownership" in the bakery. "I did my apprenticeship with John Nielsen before I went to culinary school, and afterward, when I worked as a pastry cook for the Sheraton, I continued to come in and work with him about once a week." By the time she bought the bakery, Person had been working with Nielsen almost 20 years.
Recently, though, Person made a new level of commitment to the bakery, pursuing an even more traditional style than the one she learned working beside Nielsen, a master baker. Nielsen opened the bakery at its original downtown Seattle location in 1965, bringing to town fine, authentic Danish pastries such as his famous kransekage, a tower of almond pastry rings he learned to make as a young baker in Copenhagen. "John taught me to make everything by hand," Person says.
From the rustic "Potato," a cream puff draped in marzipan and dusted with cocoa, to the elegant "Sarah Bernhard," a chocolate-mousse-filled confection as pretty as sculpture, Person still makes each pastry following the artisanal methods she learned at Nielsen's side a quarter century ago.
Over the years, Nielsen, too, has kept a hand in the bakery, slipping in once or twice a week to whip up a kransekage or a batch of kringle, the family-sized, pretzel-shaped, sweet pastry that serves as an icon for Danish bakers.
"I gave him a key when I bought the bakery," says Person. "And I said come back any time and make whatever you want. I really appreciate his help around the holidays, when things get super busy." So the mentor relationship has continued even as ownership has reversed.
But while Nielsen took a mid-20th-century pride in his adaptations to "modern" ingredients like margarine and commercial pastry fillings, Person craved a more traditional flavor.
"John was worried when I told him that I was thinking about a switch to pure butter, homemade jam and organic flour," she says. "He's always placed a tremendous amount of importance on consistency, and he liked the modern products because they were very consistent. I was torn because part of me wanted things to stay the same, too."
In late 2004, on the eve of the bakery's 40th anniversary, Person decided to find out for herself what constituted "authentic" Danish pastries. She went to Denmark and visited every bakery she could, quizzing the bakers on technique and ingredients. Convinced that a move to more traditional ingredients made sense, Person made the switch. And, to her surprise, she maintained contact with the bakers she met in Denmark.
To get the goods
Flemming Sandholm, one of the bakers Person met in Copenhagen, even came to Seattle. "I thought he was here to visit other friends, but he was just here to see the local bakeries." Person took him to see a few of them, including Macrina on Queen Anne, Essential Baking Co. in Wallingford, and the Erotic Bakery in Fremont.
"Being European," she says, "he was completely laid back about the, er, explicit shapes, but he was shocked by how much marzipan they used. How do they make a buck if they are using so much product?"
Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company