There's nothing like a crisp, buttery pastry with a cup of coffee for breakfast. I favour fruit-filled pastries, and Danishes are among my favourites.
It's all about the flour
When it comes to the dough, all flours are not created equal. The protein content is important - it's what forms the gluten that strengthens the dough, which should have a good balance between extensibility (its ability to stretch) and elasticity (its ability to regain its shape).
I use flour with a protein content of 10.5-12 per cent. A strong flour will give the dough strength to retain the steam created during cooking, which puffs up the layers before evaporating, forming delicate leaves of flaky pastry. Baker's flour is a good option. Plain soft or cake flour has a lower protein content and will not hold up as well.
Be careful not to overmix the dough or the gluten will overdevelop and make it tough. Mix it just until it's smooth, then refrigerate it to allow it to relax, wrapping it well so it doesn't dry out.
It's all about the butter
Using good butter in the pastry is the key to achieving airy, crisp results. I prefer butter with a fat content (listed in the nutritional information on the packet) of about 82 per cent. The fat makes the pastry crisp and adds a rich flavour, and low-fat butter won't produce that flaky effect. A bit of moisture from the water content in the butter, meanwhile, creates the steam that separates layers in the pastry.
When you're forming the slab, the butter needs to be pliable yet cool - you should be able to mould it with your hands without it melting. Pull off bits of butter and piece them together on baking paper, then place another piece of paper over the top and roll over it with a rolling pin to even out the slab.
It's important to keep the dough and butter cool so the butter remains firm yet pliable and the dough doesn't start to prove as you roll it. If the butter is too hard, it will break through the dough and melt out. If it's too warm, it will be incorporated into the dough and prevent the pastry rising evenly.
Folding the butter into the dough constitutes the first "turn". From there, you need to roll and fold it two more times - it's similar to making puff pastry but with fewer folds. Chill the dough between each turn to relax the gluten, and to keep it cool. And brush off any excess flour as you go to prevent the pastry drying out.
And some more tips to keep in mind
Always use a sharp knife to cut the dough so it doesn't get squashed; compacting the dough prevents it from separating. When I'm making snails, for instance, I pop the rolled-up pastry in the freezer to firm up before I cut it into portions.
Eggwash burnishes the pastries to a rich golden colour, but be sure to brush it on lightly and evenly - if it pools it'll prevent the pastries from rising.
While cooked or dried fruit is easy to use and tastes great, I sometimes substitute fresh fruit. Lightly caramelised apples are delicious in winter, as are chopped stone fruit or blueberries in summer.
Danishes can be made ahead, covered and refrigerated overnight, then brought to room temperature and proved the next morning. Uncooked pastries can also be frozen for up to five days. Defrost them in the fridge overnight, and then prove them according to the recipe in a warm place (up to 27C; the butter will melt if the temperature is any higher).
A glaze helps preserve cooked Danishes. Apricot jam warmed with a little water works well, as does a fondant glaze made by mixing icing sugar with a little water. Sprinkling them with a crumble-style topping of brown sugar, cinnamon, nuts and coconut is another tasty option. Any way you make them, I can't think of a better way to start the day.