A list of traditional Danish cakes reads like a thickly frosted encyclopedia. To scratch the surface, there’s drømmekage (a spongy cake with a caramelized topping), lagkage (a layer cake with jam and vanilla), rugbrodkage (a rye cake with blackberry jam), hindbærsnitter (made from shortcrust pastry with raspberry jam), and the famed Spandauer, more of a pastry than a cake (Americans might call it a “Danish”) filled with custard and drizzled with white icing. These are what line the shelves at bakeries and cafes across Denmark, but also what Danes regularly tackle in their home kitchens, along with lots and lots of sourdough breads.
“Traditionally, being an agricultural, dairy-producing nation, Danes have always found uses for butter and cream,” says Talia Richard-Carvajal, pastry chef at Copenhagen’s famed Hart Bageri, “that really shaped the Danish palate.” It makes sense, then, that the rural southern part of the Jutland peninsula, known as Sønderjylland — where butter, cream, and eggs have always been plentiful — is where you’ll find a ritual of cake-eating like none other: the elaborate Sønderjysk kaffebord, a high-tea-like ceremony that involves devouring no less than 14 cakes in a very particular order.
Like some kind of cake kaiseki, the winter tradition begins with a series of three soft cakes like wheat buns and gugelhupf (a yeast-based cake in a Bundt mold), followed by four layer cakes: a rye bread cake with grated hazelnuts, layered with whipped cream; potato cake; plum pie; and puff pastry with prunes. The feast wraps up with seven so-called “hard” cakes or cookies, like goderåd, a thin waffle-like treat, and ingenting, a shortcrust pastry biscuit topped with meringue. While the event rarely happens in private homes anymore — who can find time to make 14 different cakes? — it’s still regularly served in taverns and remains a huge source of local pride. “Sønderjysk kaffebord is a Sønderjylland identity marker,” explains Anne-Marie Overgaard of the Museum Sønderjylland.
While eating a dozen-plus cakes in one sitting isn’t a realistic — or even recommended — thing to do on a daily basis, the tradition still symbolizes the generally comfort-driven attitude toward life here. “Cakes represent coziness and joy,” says Overgaard, adding that there’s an inherent intimacy to sharing teatime treats. Cake-eating has even woven its way into the Danish corporate workweek. Fridays here are known as “fredagskage,” or “Friday Cake,” and involves colleagues sharing a collective breakfast of cake and pastries. See, in Denmark, consuming cake isn’t exclusive to birthdays or special holidays or even, like, dessert. It’s a daily affair; an act that’s baked into the whole Danish hygge lifestyle — which, as simply as it can be explained, is about indulging in guilt-free comforts and appreciating your community and surroundings as deeply and often as possible.
Along with such revolutionary concepts as free public health care, no-cost college tuition, publicly subsidized child care, and a famously slick design sense, could casual bulk cake consumption be one of the reasons why — despite the long, damp, dark winters — the Danes are consistently ranked among the happiest nations in the world? Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute (it’s a thing), suggests yes. “Eating cake with friends is an ideal way to add more hygge to your life,” says Wiking. Richard-Carvajal agrees. “Perhaps it’s the cake (not the welfare state) that makes it [Denmark] such a broadly peaceful, collaborative nation.”
The collaborative bit is key. Cakes are, inherently, a shared food — unlike some other treats, cakes are meant to be enjoyed with company. Savoring a slice of chocolate gateau with friends is a lot more meaningful than, say, solo-scarfing a donut or candy bar, which is what generally happens in the U.S. And while even Americans tend to eat cake with friends and family, it’s usually something that’s relegated to special occasions. In Denmark, a slice of cake is occasion enough.
“Cake brings people together,” says Jakob Baer Mogensen, pastry chef and co-founder of Copenhagen’s Leckerbaer, “and it’s something to enjoy on weekdays as much as holidays.” While cake-eating is a year-round Danish pastime, there are, of course, seasonal and celebratory cakes, too. “I often joke there’s a different bun for every occasion,” says Richard-Carvajal. “Fastelavnsboller in February, hveder in May, and teboller after school, year-round.”
During the winter holidays, most people satisfy their cake cravings with warming specialties like Danish kransekage, a towering almond cake traditionally served on New Year’s Eve, and honninghjerter (literally honey heart), a heart-shaped gingerbread. Hart’s take on a honninghjerter is a moist gingerbread cake dipped in 70 percent chocolate. “It’s a Danish Christmas classic and should ideally be eaten near a roaring fire with strong coffee,” says Richard-Carvajal. That all sounds terribly appealing on a cold, wet night anywhere.
While we’re all hunkering down this holiday season — as days become shorter and COVID-19 continues to ripple across the U.S. — there’s no better time to get baking and share the fruits of your labor with your quaranteam. As the Danes well know, when things get dark, eat cake. So, whether you’re baking or buying a traditional kransekage, a fruit-laden Christmas cake, or just a sheet pan of Funfetti, this season, make it “hyggeligt” — drop a slice on a neighbor’s doorstep or share a piece with friends over Zoom. Ideally while wearing a pair of very cozy socks.
Mary Holland the former online editor of GQ and Glamour South Africa, now living and working in New York.