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Eat Like a Freshman: Rennebohm’s Grilled Danish

This legendary breakfast is more delicious than it is nutritious.

Seven swirled cinnamon buns are photographed from above. They are on a baking pan lined with parchment paper.

Ingredients

Dough:
1⅓ cups milk
3 eggs
22 oz. cold margarine
1 oz. yeast
2 oz. sugar
1 tsp. salt
24 oz. flour

Filling:
½ cup cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1 cup pecans

Directions

Mix milk and eggs. Refrigerate this mixture and the flour for one hour before preparing the dough. Shape cold margarine into a square and refrigerate. Dissolve yeast in the milk/egg mixture. With your hand, stir in sugar and salt. Add enough flour to make a soft dough. Place dough on work surface, shaped into a seven-by-seven-inch square. Place margarine on the dough and bring the corners of the dough square to the center of the margarine. Roll the dough into a 12-by-eight-inch rectangle. Bring half of the dough to the center, and then bring the other half over the first half. Cover with plastic and refrigerate. Repeat the process of rolling out into a rectangle and completing the two folds four to five times. Roll the dough into a 12-by-eight-inch rectangle once more, brush with water, and sprinkle with the sugar, cinnamon, and pecan mixture. Roll up the dough jelly-roll style. Pinch to seal. Cut log into 30 pieces. Roll each piece in the cinnamon, sugar, and pecan mixture. Place rolls on a parchment-covered sheet and cover with plastic. Let rise until almost doubled in size. Bake at 325 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool. Take one Danish, butter the bottom side, and place on a grill until it reaches your desired color. Flip onto a plate and enjoy.

Notes

  • I am but one person. I simply can’t make proper use of 30 Danishes, so I cut this recipe into thirds. Even though 10 Danishes is still a lot for one person, dividing the recipe this way avoided the need for partial eggs, and it portioned the flour cleanly.
  • For the ingredients listed in ounces, I used my kitchen scale to measure rather than converting to teaspoons or cups. I did this in the interest of staying as true to the original recipe as possible.
  • The recipe did not specify how to incorporate the flour when making the dough, so I used an electric mixer with a dough hook attachment.
  • Immediately contradicting what I just wrote about staying true to the recipe, I substituted butter for margarine because (a) I had plenty of butter from holiday baking, (b) leftover margarine will go to waste in my house, and (c) I was grilling the pastry in butter anyway, so I figured more butter in the dough couldn’t hurt.

Review

I was a student at the UW between 2016 and 2020, which means that when I was frequenting the intersection where Library Mall becomes State Street, 676 State Street was (and still is) home to a Walgreens. After making this issue’s Eat Like a Freshman recipe, I mourn the 676 State tenant I never knew: Rennebohm Drug Store.

Alumni through the 1980s will likely be familiar with the iconic “Rennie’s,” which was as much a soda fountain and social hub as it was a convenience store and pharmacy. On its menu, among melts, malts, and chili, was a uniquely Rennie’s creation: the grilled Danish. In a 2011 article, journalist and self-proclaimed grilled Danish fan Doug Moe ’79 speculated that “Rennie’s grilled Danish is the single most mourned food item in Madison history.” A quick Google search yields this recipe shared on a seemingly defunct Rennebohm Drug Stores Facebook page. The comments on the post wax poetic about mornings spent munching on the indulgent treat.

I’d heard enough. I was sold. I had to try this Danish.

As I have never laminated pastry (I typically just buy my flaky sweets from the professionals), I already knew I was in for something of a challenge. I became even more skeptical of producing something close to the gooey delicacy of Madisonian memory when the instructions described the shaping of something more akin to cinnamon rolls than the layered, filled pastries I know as Danishes. But I also live in the Midwest, where “puppy chow” is something you should never feed your dog and “bubblers” aren’t blowing bubbles if they’re working properly, so what do I know?

I’ll tell you what I now know: Danishes should be grilled in butter. From the second I popped the puffy, proofed rolls into the oven, my kitchen smelled like the inside of a cinnamon bun. As if that wasn’t luxurious enough, I then pressed the pastry into a pan of hot butter, and the sizzle alone could beckon a hoard of hungry students into a corner lunch counter at any time of day. The cinnamon-sugar filling and coating caramelized in the hot pan in a way it couldn’t possibly do in the gentle heat of the initial bake in the oven, and the resulting golden-brown crust and light crunch are nearly irresistible qualities in any baked good.

In the name of thorough research, I tested this recipe with a freshly baked Danish and again with one that was a few days old. (Hey, I had 10 of these things.) Both were equally delicious, which leads me to believe that my boss was onto something in speculating that this recipe might’ve been a way to make use of day-old Danishes. If it wasn’t, I’ll consider my experiment a contribution to food science.

Would I eat one of these treats with the regularity that some folks claim to have in their heyday? Probably not. (My doctor might be reading this.) But do I understand how this sweet, salty, oh-so-Midwestern confection left an indelible sensory memory with so many Badger alums? Absolutely.

I’m honored to finally count myself among them.

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