Talking with Poul Larsen about old Seattle versus new, making pastry and updating a Ballard classic.
Larsen’s makes a lot of kringle — 80,000 a year. If you cut each pretzel of pastry into 10 pieces (which you probably should — they’re big), that’s more than enough for everyone in Seattle.
The bakery’s in Ballard, in the northwest of this Northwest city where, on a clear day, the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains look noticeably closer. Immigrants from Northern Europe settled here, with fishing a common trade, but people still need bread (and kringle). Poul Larsen started baking in Copenhagen, Denmark, at 14 years old; when he arrived here, at age 30, he first worked at Gai’s Bakery, then, in 1974, opened his own. He recently celebrated his 77th birthday. He tried to retire, but, he says, “It was boring.”
After almost half a century, Larsen’s Danish Bakery has seen some changes. Larsen recalls when you could’ve sat out in the middle of 24th Avenue Northwest for hours: no traffic, no problem. Maybe a grandma would eventually come and shoo you away, he laughs.
Larsen’s still feels small-town. It’s the kind of place where you can get a bear claw; there is free Wi-Fi, but no one seems to use it much. Over the last five years, Mr. Larsen (as people tend to call him) and production manager Peter Rizzo undertook a series of updates and expansions to both the retail part of the bakery and the workspace. Out in front, inspired by the present-day Copenhagen bakery of one of Mr. Larsen’s friends, the space looks more contemporary than classic, with a slate tile floor, a flagstone wall and a huge exposed cedar beam that was uncovered in the remodel. Three flatscreens show oversaturated photos of lush-looking loaves of bread and pastries, as well as advertising daily coffee specials like amaretto on Thursday and Sunday’s Irish creme.
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For business in the rear, the Larsen’s production space has been doubled, and 15 big new windows let the neighborhood watch the baking and cake decorating. Many noses get pressed against the glass, especially when the kringle’s being made. That involves a Wonka-esque, 40-foot conveyor-belt line that takes sheets of dough down to 2.4 mm thick, cuts them into strips, applies lines of almond-paste filling, folds them into a sort of V, and chops them into 42-inch lengths (that part’s called the guillotine). Then they get hand-formed into the traditional pretzel shape.
Larsen’s goes through a lot of almond paste with the kringle, of course, but other Danish pastry favorites are laden with it, too. There’s kranse, a densely chewy combination of almond paste, sugar and egg whites, which, when stacked in concentric circles, creates the celebratory towers known as kransekake. Smorkage is a cluster of conjoined pastry sweet rolls with almond paste, custard and raisins, topped with plenty of old-school powdered-sugar icing. It’s important to note that Larsen’s is not a gourmand’s bakery: They make Danish specialties, but also all kinds of breads, cakes, doughnuts, cookies, croissants and even bagels. They use margarine, not butter, in the kringle and more. If you ask if they’ll heat up a ham-and-cheese croissant for you, they’ll point you toward the microwave, which would cause a French person pretty much irrecoverable dismay.
But however you may feel about margarine, the sense of community at Larsen’s is unmistakable and, in Seattle nowadays, rare. If you sit for even a few minutes, you might hear a customer explaining to a counterperson that in Norway, the cardamom rolls are called “boller.” “I’ve worked here for a long time,” the counterperson says cheerfully. “We’re the last ones who make them.” And yes, they make the version with raisins, too, and if you call ahead, they’ll save some for you. The customer introduces himself in a gentlemanly fashion, requests a business card for raisin-roll-calling-ahead purposes, and thanks her kindly. A little later, another customer teases about the remodel, “Oh, you people, going modern! What is this all about!” He’s been coming here every Wednesday for years, and his special coffee order is coming right up. Meanwhile, he avails himself of the pastry-sample plate.
Larsen’s has a suggestion box, and it’s entirely sincere (“Your opinion matters greatly to us …”). Outside, if you catch the eye of someone separating a great many eggs or preparing a design for the top of a cake through the new windows, they will most definitely wave back at you. Sometimes you’ll see Mr. Larsen himself working in there.
He still loves what he does, and loves Seattle, too. Speaking of changes, though, Mr. Larsen calls our city’s rampant homelessness “a shame.” In Denmark, he notes in his still-present accent, it is not this way. Everyone, he professes strongly, deserves both an education and a roof over their head, and he still feels disbelief that our society does not provide this, that it provides less and less.
Above all, he’s thankful for his customers, he’s at pains to say — out of everything, that’s what he wants the world to know. So what’s his favorite pastry? “I have to stay away,” Mr. Larsen says, laughing and patting his not-unsubstantial belly. Later, he’s seen snacking on something anyway.
Larsen’s Danish Bakery: 8000 24th Ave. N.W. (Ballard), Seattle; 800-626-8631; larsensbakery.com
An earlier version of this story stated that Larsen’s is located in Crown Hill; it is in the Loyal Heights part of Ballard.