Dense, flaky, and sometimes sadistically sweet, the kringle is a powerhouse. It’s a racetrack-shaped round of laminated dough, stuffed with fruit or nut filling and often slathered with icing. Eaten straight, it can short-circuit your brain with a surge of sucrose, but when paired with strong coffee, it’s a divine breakfast or afternoon snack.
Like many immigrants to Racine, Wisconsin, in the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries, the Badger State’s official dessert hails from Denmark. The word kringle derives from kringla, which means ring or circle in Old Norse. For insight on the pastry’s origins, I reached out to a Danish-American friend, Steen Moeller, who is an active volunteer at the Danish-American Center in Minneapolis, giving him a unique perspective on the traditions of Denmark and the Midwest.
“I have tried the kringle from Racine,” he responded, “and some of them are good, and the one—and only the one—with almond is analogous to what they have in Denmark.” After some back-and-forth, and some consultation with his mom and sister, he opined that a Danish cousin to the kringle would be something in the flaky wienerbrød, or “Viennese bread,” family, which is also the origin of the pastry that we call a Danish.
Eaten straight, it can short-circuit your brain with a surge of sucrose, but when paired with strong coffee, it’s a divine breakfast or afternoon snack.
I married into a kringle family. My mother-in-law, Ingrid Dilley, grew up in Racine. “What I remember about kringle, mostly, is that my mother would go over to visit her mother at least two or three times a week, every afternoon,” she recalls. “All of her sisters would get together with their mother and have kringle and coffee. I thought everybody had coffee and kringle at 3:30 or 4 every afternoon!” That daily afternoon coffee-and-pastry break, known as fika in Sweden, is at the heart of Scandinavian hospitality, with no direct equivalent in the modern U.S.
“I remember one time, my mom had had a heart attack, and she was stable, but they wanted to put her in a long-term facility,” Dilley says. “And my sister and brother and I were all in town and we’d gone to look at long-term facilities, and oh my God, we were all depressed. So we went back to my sister’s house… and there lay a blueberry kringle on the table. I don’t even like blueberry that much. But we sat down and had coffee and the three of us ate the whole kringle. We felt so much better.”
Like New Haven pizza, Philly cheesesteaks, Chicago deep dish, and other regional favorites, the kringle tends to attract partisans unafraid to make a case—sometimes logic-driven, sometimes purely emotional—for the establishment of their choosing. Around Racine, four bakeries lead the pack: O&H, Bendtsen’s, Lehmann’s, and Larsen.
If you’ve heard of any of the four, it’s probably O&H, which has been aggressive about modernizing its image, diversifying its offerings, and scaling up production. “[O&H] built a new factory with a shop in the front that looks like it could be at the Mall of America,” says Rick Nelson. Nelson, the longtime food critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, joined a kringle family when he married his husband, Robert. Like my wife and my mother-in-law, he prefers Bendtsen’s.
“It tastes like they always use butter there, and the other ones taste too shortening-y to me,” he says. “Shortening doesn’t give the flakiness and richness that butter does.” And while he once conducted a kringle taste test featuring ten options from four bakeries, he now prefers to make the pastry himself. “You can control the sweetness by what the filling is and how much icing you put on,” he says. “It’s really about the texture that only butter can put into a baked good when you mix it with flour. And in terms of color, it has a much more golden quality than the fakey-brown colors of a factory-made kringle.”
Store-bought or homemade, the kringle has found staying power as a regional symbol. “I think some of [the appeal] is pride of place. It’s something Racine can call its own,” Nelson says. “Not just Racine, but all of Wisconsin: ‘We have something we’re very proud of here.’ I think it’s so cool that Racine has their own pastry. Wouldn’t it be cool if every city had their own kind of hallmark pastry? I think that would be the greatest thing in the world.”