Who among us has not wanted to indulge in a little bit of procrastibaking?
The word’s meaning is obvious: It’s when a person, who really should be channeling their energies elsewhere, instead chooses to direct their attention to the soothing rituals of baking.
Midwesterners interested in stumbling down a procrastibaking rabbit hole should consider turning to “Midwest Made: Big, Bold Baking From the Heartland” (Running Press, 2019). Chicago native Shauna Sever wrote the cookbook — her fourth — after returning to her hometown after a dozen years of living in California.
“I realized that I’d taken for granted so many beautiful and interesting things that were regular items at bakeries at home but don’t exist on the West Coast,” she said. “People in California have never heard of kringle.”
Now, thanks to a collection of 125 recipes that stretch from Ohio Shaker Lemon Pie to St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, bakers can procrastibake to their heart’s content with potica, kolaches, monster cookies, Cornish pasties and golden raisin-sour cream pie.
And kringle. Because she grew up 90 minutes south of Racine, Wis. — otherwise known as the nation’s kringle capital — Sever has a lifelong history with the Danish pastry. It was one of the first recipes to make her gotta-have list when she was brainstorming the book’s content.
“It’s a point of passion for people there,” she said. “It’s so unique to that specific area, and there aren’t many dishes that you can say that about.”
The enduring tradition that is kringle reaches back to a wave of Danish immigrants who settled in southeastern Wisconsin more than a century ago.
The word “kringle” is Danish for “pretzel,” and that was the pastry’s original shape. In Racine, that form has since evolved into an easier-to-make oval. Kringle is so deeply ingrained into the city’s identity that in 2013 the Wisconsin Legislature decreed it the state’s official pastry.
Sever’s egg-rich recipe mimics the qualities of a labor-intensive laminated dough, but with far fewer steps. Developing it was a trial-and-error process, during which she encountered several revelations.
“I realized that it’s actually like making a pie crust,” she said. “You’re just creating layers by rolling, and folding. Yes, there’s yeast involved, but you don’t have to think about it, at all. You’re not proofing it.”
Her shortcut theory was confirmed when Sever’s research led to the prolific Scandinavian baking handiwork of Duluth cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas.
“She’s the queen, and this is the way she does it,” said Sever. “She swears that everyone in Denmark does it this way, too. As soon as I found that out from her, I put it in the book.”
Her greatest innovation? Sever compresses the airy dough’s natural inclination to puff up — kringle pastry is flatter, denser — with a technique that “came out of desperation,” she said with a laugh. Right after the kringles come out of the oven, she carefully places one of the baking sheets on top of the other kringle and lightly presses for a few seconds. Then she reverses the baking sheets and repeats the process.
“It feels so wrong, I know,” she said. “But it works.”
The book contains instructions for preparing an almond filling (“to me, that’s a quintessential kringle,” she said), but Sever also likes berry flavors, easily accessed via store-bought preserves.
“They stand up to all that rich, buttery pastry,” she said. “And if you like nuts, then brown sugar and pecans is always delicious.”
Minnesota is represented with a peanut butter cookie that replicates a similar treat that bewitched Sever at Rose Street Patisserie in Minneapolis, and in the introduction to her go-to banana bread recipe, she gives a shout-out to Pillsbury home economist Mary Ellis Ames for publishing what is widely believed to be the first banana bread recipe. It appeared in a 1933 edition of “Pillsbury’s Balanced Recipes” cookbook.
“She basically out-Martha’d Martha,” Sever writes, referring to the homemaking juggernaut that is Martha Stewart. “The timing of Mary Ellis Ames’ brainstorm couldn’t have been more on target for creating an American classic.”
On the subject of enduring American favorites, there’s Sever’s Bundt pan collection. During her research-related travels across the Midwest, she haunted thrift shops and antique stores until she’d assembled a collection of nearly 40 of Minnesota’s iconic baking export. Her assortment runs the color and size gamut.
“I really went hard-core,” she said with a laugh. “I had to put a cap on the buying for a while, because I couldn’t stop. But I love them all.”