Lizzy -when she was working in Paris after college- kept telling us about this unbelievable sweet, soft yet crispy pastry with a caramelized bottom. It originated outside Paris, in Brittany, and she swore we’d never had anything like it. And, Lizzy said, only one shop in all of Paris offered the real deal. For the life of me though, I couldn’t remember the pastry’s name. It didn’t sound French. And when I asked her to spell it, that confused me even more.
One late December afternoon when we were walking down the Rue de Rivoli near our vacation apartment in the Marais, Lizzy did an about-face and ran back to the store behind us. It was Larnicol, an outpost of the famous Boulevard Saint-Germain shop that single-handedly brought the elusive Breton treat, kouign-amann, to the capital. And inside the window was tray after tray of small, spiraled pastries neatly displayed beneath signs labeled, Rhum-Raisins, Cerise and Praliné.
Finally I’d get to try the pâtisserie!
Mais no! It was too late in the day, Lizzy said. We needed to come back early morning, when they were fresh from the oven.
Who am I to argue with such a forceful professeur? So we waited. And eventually one morning before class, Lizzy arrived on the landing of our flat with a bag full of kouign-amann or kouignettes, as the individual sized pastries are known. She spilled the contents onto the kitchen counter –pistache, framboise and her favorite, salted butter caramel.
And were they as good as Lizzy and the legions of French foodie fans say?
We took our first bite…The kouign-amann was a delicious, addicting and complicated combination of crunchy, soft, sweet and buttery, much like a croissant, maybe even better. Yes, better. So it’s true… the pastries are as good and unique as everyone says.
By the way… kouign-amann, means “butter cake” in Breton, a Celtic language which is most closely related to southwest Britain’s Cornish. And now that I’ve tasted these treats both in France and stateside, I never, ever forget their pronunciation. It’s “queen ah-mahn.”
After enjoying kouign-amann in Paris, of course we wanted to make them at home. You can find recipes from several sources on the internet, but all look a bit intimidating. Honestly, though, this is an easy recipe. Granted it is time-consuming and takes about 4 hours to complete the rolling and turning which creates the myriad layers of butter, sugar and pastry. Plan this as a fun project for a cold, rainy afternoon or for that special brunch with family over the holidays. The results really are worth it.
We call this “Kitchen Pantry Kouign-Amann” because you shoul look through your pantry and fridge for your favorite jams, jellies, nuts, chocolates, etc. to flavor the pastries. We’ve experimented with the following from our kitchen: apricot Trinquelinette jam and pecans; raspberry jam and almonds; raspberry jam , white chocolate and almonds; dark chocolate; and our favorite (just as in Paris) salted caramel.
A few things to keep in mind as you’re making kouign-amann:
- The basic concept of this recipe -or any other puff pastry- is to create layers, in this case layer upon layer of butter, dough, and sugar cinnamon. You accomplish this by spreading butter, then cinnamon sugar on top of the dough. You multiply the layers by folding them one on top of the other. This is known as “turning the dough.” (Yes, you actually rotate the dough 90 degrees every time you “turn,” thus the name.) For those who aren’t familiar with “turning,” we describe it below both in the recipe and in pictures. It really isn’t hard at all!
- Keep the butter cool. If the butter gets too mushy, stick the “project” in the fridge for a few minutes.
- Keep your counter and rolling pin sufficiently floured during while “turning.” That will probably be obvious!
- 1 cup water, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not instant)
- 2¾ cups all-purpose flour, divided
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8 ounces cold salted butter, plus extra to grease the pans
- 1½ cups sugar, divided, plus extra for shaping the pastries
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- To flavor the pastries, dig out your favorite jams, jellies, nuts, chocolate, etc. from your pantry and fridge. (Be creative with combinations!)
- Combine the water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Let the mixture stand for a few minutes to dissolve. Add 2½ cups of the flour (reserving ¼ cup for later) and the salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until a sticky, shaggy dough is formed.
- Fit your mixer with the dough hook and knead the dough at low speed for 3 to 4 minutes, until the dough is slightly tacky but smooth. If the dough is so wet it sticks to the sides of the bowl, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time and knead until the dough is smooth. If the dough is stiff and dry, add 1 tablespoon of water at a time and knead until the dough is smooth. (If not using a mixer, knead the dough by hand for about 7 minutes until smooth.)
- Cover the mixing bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place for one hour, until doubled in size. When the dough has doubled, place it in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes or as long as overnight. (Remember: Chilling the dough is important.)
- When the dough is chilled and you're ready to proceed, sprinkle your counter with a tablespoon or two of the remaining flour. Lay the butter on top and sprinkle with another tablespoon or two of flour. (Picture #1 below.) Begin tapping the top of the butter with your rolling pin, and then pound more forcefully once the flour sticks to the butter.
- Pound the butter flat. (You want to end up with one large piece of butter, so if you're using two sticks of butter, quickly smoosh them together with your fingers between poundings.) Then fold the butter in half using a spatula to avoid warming the butter with your hands. Pound the butter flat and fold it in half again. Repeat another 2 to 3 times until the butter is very pliable, flattens with a few hits of the rolling pin, and folds easily. Sprinkle with additional flour if needed to prevent the butter from sticking.
- Pound the butter into a rectangle roughly 6 inches by 10 inches. (Picture #2) Transfer to a baking sheet and refrigerate while you roll out the dough. (Do not refrigerate the butter for longer than 15 minutes or it will be too stiff.)
- (Note about the following steps: Now you'll begin "turning" the dough, i.e. rolling, folding and turning, to create lots of buttery, sugary layers. You will do four "turns" before you finish the kouign-amann. Remember that the butter shouldn't get too warm. If you have to stop the turning process to answer the phone, etc., put it in the fridge for a few minutes.)...Flour the counter, then place the chilled dough on top, and roll it to a rectangle 12 inches by 20 inches. (Picture #3)
- Take the butter out of the fridge and place it in the middle of the dough. (Picture #4) Fold the top third down over the butter, then fold the bottom third up, like folding a letter.(Pictures #5 and #6)
- Rotate the piece of dough and butter so that the narrower, open end is facing you, like you're reading a book. (Picture #7) Roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. (So it looks like Picture #3) Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding up a letter.
- Rotate the dough 90 degrees so that the open end is again facing you, like a book (the book view). Again roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding a letter. You have now completed 2 turns.
- Move the dough to the baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 30 minutes. (Don't leave it in much longer or the butter will become too stiff.) While the dough is chilling, mix the sugar with the cinnamon.
- (Note on steps below: Now you'll remove the dough from the fridge and repeat the process above, this time adding sugar to each "turn.")... Specifically, transfer the dough to a well-floured counter. With the narrow open end facing you (the "book view"), roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. Sprinkle it all over with ¾ cups of sugar/cinnamon mixture and press it lightly to help it stick. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding a letter.
- Rotate the dough 90 degrees so that the open end is again facing you (the "book view."). Roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. Sprinkle it all over with the remaining ¾ cups of sugar/cinnamon and lightly press it into the dough. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding a letter. If any sugar falls out, press it back into the folds. You have now finished 4 total turns. Move the dough to the baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 30 minutes. Meanwhile,liberally butter the insides of the muffin tins (total of 12 muffins).
- Sprinkle the counter with sugar. Remove the dough from the fridge and move it to the counter. Sprinkle a little sugar over the top of the dough. Roll the dough out to a rectangle approximately 8 inches wide by 24 inches long.
- Slice the dough horizontally into two strips 4 inches wide. Cut each strip into 4-inch squares to create 12 squares. Leave the square empty or put a scant teaspoon or so of your favorite jam, jelly, chocolate, etc. into the middle. (Don't be tempted to put much more of ingredients which melt or you may lose the crispiness of the pastry.) Add nuts, if desired. Fold the corners of each square toward the center. Pick up each pastry and tuck it into the muffin tins. Don't worry if it feels like you're squishing them...That's okay.
- At this point you can cover the muffin tins and transfer them to the fridge overnight. If you do, bring them to room temperature and let rise about an hour before cooking. Otherwise, loosely cover the muffin tins with plastic and let them rise at room temperature until slightly puffy, about 30 to 40 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Set the muffin tin on a baking sheet to catch drips during baking. Put the kouign-amann in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through baking. They are done when the tops are deep golden and the tips look like they're about to burn.
- Remove the kouign-amann from the oven and let them cool about 5 minutes (just until they're ready to handle or they'll be difficult to take from the pan.) Using a knife and/or spoon, take the pastries out of the muffin cups onto a cooling rack. Serve when cool enough to eat. We actually like them better the day after they're made.