Say it with us now: "kween a-mahn." That's how to pronounce the beloved French pastry kouign-amann.
Native to the Brittany region of France, kouign-amann takes a croissant-like dough and laminates it with butter and sugar for a flaky treat with a caramelized outer crust (see the recipe). The pastry has been around since 1860, but it's fair to say that many people haven't heard of it. Back in 2014, the baking-competition show The Great British Bake Off featured an episode challenging contestants to make the pastry, putting it back on the radar. Since then, we have seen a resurgence of kouign-amann in bakeries across the country.
Dominique Ansel is known for his DKAs (Dominique's Kouign Amann), which he sells in all of his bakeries in New York and Tokyo. Ansel fell in love with the pastry when he worked under a chef from Brittany during his time at Fauchon in Paris. "Funny enough, the very traditional and rustic kouign-amann are really dense and heavy," Ansel says. "But in more modern versions, everything is slightly lighter, and by just bringing in that lightness, it becomes this fascinating pastry. It has all the different textures you can imagine—a crispy, caramelized shell and tender flaky layers with this slightly gooeyness in the center."
Alessandra Altieri, the director of Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery, insists the most important part of the pastry is the balance of butteriness, flakiness and sweetness. "The outside should be sweet and caramelized. When you break a piece off, it should be crisp but still light and flaky. That, combined with a strong aroma and flavor of butter, makes the perfect kouign-amann."
The base is a croissant-like yeast dough, which adds an ever-so-slightly fermented flavor. Ansel uses bread flour to ensure a higher gluten content. This makes for a more elastic dough that folds nicely during laminating. We stuck with regular all-purpose flour and used milk to bloom the yeast for a tender and elastic dough that creates perfect layers.
To make those truly indulgent flaky layers, surround an insert of butter with the dough before folding. Typically, the butter is beaten with a baking pin over a sprinkling of flour, allowing it be rolled into a rectangle. We used a mixture of flour, sugar and salt to ensure the butter is easily rolled out, while also seasoning the insert.
Altieri says that at Bouchon, they "prefer to pound the butter in between two pieces of parchment paper to get it flat. If you find this to be too much of a struggle, sub the parchment paper for a light sprinkle of flour on the surface of your cutting board."
Once the butter insert is enclosed in dough, fold it into thirds and roll it out with a sprinkling of sugar. Then repeat this process three more times. While you would refrigerate the dough between every fold for a traditional puff pastry, kouign-amann goes all in one go. Ansel says, "When you are mixing in sugar, you are going to draw out the moisture from the dough, so you can't chill in between. It's all about fast hands and quick folds. The dough gets very soft at the end, and you have to do all the folds cleanly and quickly."
"Both the dough and the butter should have as close to the same temperature and texture as possible," Altieri adds. "The butter should be chilled but still flexible. If the butter is too soft, it can start to melt into your dough, which is not desirable. Layers of butter and dough is the goal. If they start to combine, you will result in a more dense and less flaky pastry."
This is the only step where we differed from the pastry chefs. At Dominique Ansel Bakery, traditional metal rings are used to have the pastry caramelize directly on a baking sheet. Bouchon uses a more modern approach with silicone mold to prevent sticking. We decided to bake them in a muffin tin to be more accessible for the home cook.
Everyone agrees on one step, however: Remove the kouign-amann from the pan immediately after baking. If you let the caramel set, even for a few minutes, the pastries will cement to the pan and tear.
With only six ingredients and some expert advice, you can quickly master the art of laminating dough and start churning these out. Kouign-amann will perfume your entire kitchen with the aroma of butter and caramel—which will only build your anticipation before you devour them.
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