Before handing me the keys to my temporary home in the French countryside, the owner gave me three simple instructions: Play fetch with the dog, Gyp, at least twice a day. Give the cat, Ella, plenty of lap-time. And check the inflatable pool house each week, to be sure it wasn’t leaking.
I followed all three instructions diligently, and for nearly a month everything was fine. Then… drama.
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A storm howled like a freight train through the region, battering the countryside with rain, and hail, and gail-force winds. It tossed the pool house like a toy, slamming into it broadside and sliding more than a thousand pounds of water and plastic five feet across the deck and into the pool itself. With time the storm passed. But in its wake it left a massive, heavy, sodden, plastic mess sunk beneath roughly a metric shit-ton of grimy water. And it was my responsibility, as the house-sitter, to get it back up.
To her credit, Gyp tried to lend a hand. She sat dutifully by the edge of the pool, keeping a watchful eye on the donkeys which grazed in an adjacent field. I’m not sure whether she thought this was their fault, or simply that their proximity would thwart any repair efforts, but whenever they got close enough to the fence for their ears to hang over she’d run and bark and scare them off.
Ella, on the other hand, was perfectly useless. She’d slink out to the pool whenever I was knee-deep in muck and plastic, then sit on the deck looking at me in that judgy way that only felines can.
It took two days of siphoning, pumping, draining, lifting, and stretching. There were more than a few close calls. More than a few setbacks. More than a few sudden hailstorms. But at long last, I was able to get the foundation of the bubble back in place, skim the water off the top, and restore it to it’s bubbly grandeur.
When it was over, I needed to celebrate. More than just a drink — I’d really strained myself. I’d waded through icy green water, gashed my foot on something mysterious, pulled muscles I didn’t know I had. At one point I was almost vacuum-packed by a five-hundred pound blanket of deflating plastic. No a cheap bottle of wine wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted something forbidden. I wanted some fucking cake…
Excuse my french.
What is Kouign Amann?
Kouign Amann (pronounced queen a-mahn) is a buttery, flaky, sugar-coated pastry from the Brittany region of France, where all of this drama took place. Its name literally translates to butter cake in the local dialect. Sweet, crispy layers of laminated dough, with peaks of caramelized sugar and just a hint of sea salt to make the flavors pop. You haven’t lived ’till you’ve tried one, which is ironic because once you have you’ve removed about nine years from whatever life expectancy you had left.
“The sea conditions everything in Brittany; its salt is in the blood of the people.”
-R.A.J. Walling, The Charm of Brittany
Salt is the life blood of Brittany. It’s a place that grew up around the sea — “ar mor” as its called — and for more than a thousand years it lay secluded from the rest of France, accessible only by its beautiful rugged coast. Then it was known simply by its Gaulish name, Aremorica, the place by the sea.
According to R.A.J. Walling, author of The Charm of Brittany, even Caesar himself commanding the armies of Rome was unable to conquer Aremorica by land. It took Decimus Brutus and a great naval battle to finally subjugate the region and its people.
But it wasn’t to last. Rome fell, at the feet of invading hordes, and just as the sea brought Brutus’ fleet to Aremorica’s horizon, it ushered in the next wave of people who would call this place home. Small bands of Celts, fleeing the islands of the north, settled at various points along this new land’s shores. They came from Britain. They named this place Brittany.
Like many things in this region of France, Kouign Amann is patently un-French. Brittany is a French region, but the culture is Celtic, and the language spoken around the hearth for many generations was actually closer to Cornish than it was to French.
All of this helps to explain why searching for kouign amann in Google Translate produces no useful results. It also hints at why many people living nearby looked utterly lost whenever I tried to communicate in my (very) basic French.
Why Learn to Make Kouign Amann?
The most practical reason to learn to make Kouign Amann is that in doing so you’ll learn to make laminated dough, which can easily be used to make dozens of other pastries and baked goods from around the world.
Laminated dough is a combination of yeasted bread dough and a slab of butter, laid out carefully, chilled, and folded a few times in order to create dozens of alternating layers. When the heat from the oven hits the dough, the water inside turns to steam which puffs up the layers, while the heat causes the butter to essentially deep-fry some of the dough. The end result is a product with the flakiness of puff pastry, and the heft of something more substantial.
Croissants, turnovers, cinnamon rolls, cheese twists, danishes, and even some pie crusts and tops all use laminated dough. Master this process, and you’ve basically become the king of brunch.
At the Market
Let’s talk about what you’ll need. Below you’ll find a recipe card, complete with ingredient names translated into French so you can find them while you’re wandering a foreign market.
Further down, you can find in-depth explanations of each item, along with ideas for substitutes.
Some people rail against the idea of substitutes when cooking, and especially when baking. Different ingredients will yield different results, they say. They’re right.
But the point of Cooking Travelers is to make recipes accessible no matter where in the world you are. According to ClassoFoods’ extensive course on bread and bread-making, there are enormous differences in the various types of flours, salts, yeasts, and even water that go into doughs like this. There can even be noticeable differences between two bags of the same flour that were processed by different workers at the same factory.
With so much potential variability, you can either opt for anal-retentive, monk-like obsession with detail, or you can shoot for the main gist of the thing, and enjoy some damn cake. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something inspiring about watching a masterful pastry chef do their thing. But when it comes to this piece, and other pieces on this site for that matter, it’s more important that you understand the concepts, so you can make smart substitutions when you need to.
There are a lot of different types of yeast available, and it’s important you choose the right one because the yeast does some heavy lifting in this recipe.
You want Baker’s Yeast, not Nutritional Yeast or Brewer’s Yeast. Both Nutritional, and Brewer’s yeasts are dried at very high temperatures, which deactivates the yeast cells, rendering them useless for leavening.
Baker’s Yeast, on the other hand is dried at low temperatures, so while some of the cells die off, they encapsulate other living cells and preserve them. This is why many supermarket yeasts need to be mixed with water before use. You’re re-activating the dormant yeast cells.
Among the Baker’s yeasts, you’re most likely to run into one of three: Active Dry, Instant, and Rapid Rise. Among the three, each should work fine, but may require different activation so read the instructions carefully. The debate rages on as to whether Rapid Rise is worthy of being used in recipes. I used it, and enjoyed the results.
The one type of Baker’s Yeast you want to avoid if you see it is Deactivated Yeast. It’s usually reserved for pizza doughs, and like Brewer’s Yeast and Nutritional Yeast, it’s got no leavening properties.
Elevation changes the way doughs rise. If you’re traveling high above sea level, and the recipe isn’t seeming to work out properly, try consulting King Arthur Flour’s helpful hints for high-altitude baking.
Flour is another ingredient with loads of options. Most recipes for laminated dough, and Kouign Amann in particular, advise against using All-Purpose (or AP) flour. Some say it doesn’t have enough protein to put out a nice firm dough, others point to the fact that the recipe requires so much time and attention, you might as well use the best you can get.
That said, I used AP flour, or Type 55 as it’s called in France, end enjoyed the results. You can experiment with other flours for fun if you like. But if all you can find is AP, then don’t be afraid to use it.
Some people ask whether they can use gluten-free flour for a recipe like this. Most bakers agree that a gluten-free flour alone won’t give you the kind of consistency you’re looking for. But Nicole Hunn of Gluten Free on a Shoestring has a handful of all-purpose gluten free flour blends which are much more likely to get the job done. She’s even got a recipe for croissants which doesn’t seem much different than this one (save the flour blend).
If you’re avoiding gluten just because you’ve heard it’s bad, then my advice would be to throw caution to the wind for this recipe. The sugar is going to do more damage to your system than the gluten will. But if you’re avoiding gluten because it makes you ill, then opt for Nicole’s flour blends.
You want to use salted butter. You’ll need about a half-pound for this recipe. It’d be best if you can get it as a single large block. But don’t be afraid to simply use two sticks (or a lot of little restaurant butter packets) if that’s all you have access to. Keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to work with it.
You don’t need anything fancy. Plain old granulated sugar will work just fine.
Most recipes call for a 10-1 sugar-to-salt ratio, but I found that produced a sickly-sweet end product that I didn’t enjoy eating at all. You need some salt, otherwise the sugar just tastes bland. But rather than mixing it into the sugar and dough, I recommend simply sprinkling a small pinch on the pastries right before they go in the oven.
Use the finest textured salt you can find. Kosher will work, but a very fine sea salt will work better.
What?! I didn’t see wine on the ingredient list!
Shame on you. You should always cook with wine nearby. In this case, it doesn’t go in the mixing bowl, it goes in your mouth. You can use the empty bottle as a club to beat the butter senseless (see step #3), and as a rolling pin.
You could just opt for a rolling pin. But Ella, the cat, would judge you.
In the Kitchen
Alright let’s talk process. In order to make this recipe globe-trotter friendly I’ve tried to remove as many steps and tools as possible, while still getting high quality results.
All you need to make this is a large mixing bowl, a baking pan, a knife, a kitchen-towel, and the afore-mentioned rolling pin/wine bottle.
“But what about the dough hook I see in other recipes?” I hear you ask, “What about the wax paper? The plastic-wrap? And the spoons… What about the measuring spoons?”
We need to have a talk about your precious measuring spoons. Did you ever stop to ask yourself where measuring cups or spoons came from? The answer is that they were popularized at the turn of the century by a woman named Fannie Farmer (I’m not kidding).
They were popularized in large part to make reading and writing recipes easier, not because precise measurements were actually needed in cooking. A lot of kitchen equipment is this way; nice to have, but by no means necessary.
Your Italian grandmother didn’t need a set of measuring spoons and with some practice, neither do you!
Use the measuring cups the first few times you try a recipe. But pay close attention to how things look when they go together. The very best batches I made (the fifth and sixth) were eyeballed from start to finish.
The one thing you really can’t do without is some kind of low-temperature environment. If the house is cold, that will work, but a refrigerator or freezer is better. This dough works by creating distinct layers of dough and butter. If it gets too warm, the butter begins to melt into the layers of dough, which will inhibit your puffing/layering effect.
So, with your mixing bowl, knife, and freezer space ready, lets get started.
Part I: Making Laminated Dough
Step #1: Activate Yeast
Pour 1 Cup of warm water into your mixing bowl. Add to that a tablespoon of sugar, and two teaspoons (or one standard packet) of yeast. Stir it lightly, then leave it to activate for about ten minutes.
After ten minutes you should see a very light foam forming on the surface of the liquid. This is important. It’s a sign that your batch of yeast is good. Yeast is extremely sensitive to heat, and can only be stored for so long even at room temperatures. When live yeast begins processing the sugar you put in the water, it releases small amounts of ethanol along with carbon dioxide, which bubbles to the top creating the foam. The carbon dioxide bubbles are what cause bread to rise.
If there’s no foam forming on the surface of the liquid, it’s a sign that the batch of yeast you got is de-activated or dead. You need to scrap it and start with a new batch. Otherwise, your dough won’t rise.
Step #2: Mix Dough
Once the yeast has had time to activate, add your flour to the bowl. Stir or mix with floured hands until the flour and water combine into a shaggy dough. It will be sticky at first. Continue adding flour one small hand-full at a time until the whole thing forms a single ball, and no longer sticks to everything it touches.
Then lay it in the bottom of the bowl, and cover the bowl with a clean, dry kitchen towel, and set it aside for about two hours until the dough doubles in size.
While the actual work of laminated dough doesn’t take long, there’s a lot of waiting involved.
Once your dough has doubled in size, roll it out roughly onto a floured baking pan, then store it in the freezer while you move to the next step.
Step #3: Soften Butter
Now that your dough is chilling, it’s time to create the slab of butter which will give the final product all its layers.
Lay your butter out on a floured work surface. Then sprinkle the top with more flour, and proceed to beat the hell out of it with your rolling pin/wine-bottle. Your goal is to smoosh it flat, then fold it over and smoosh it flat again.
Repeat the process two or three times, flouring as needed to keep the butter from sticking to the counter, and working the butter down into a rectangle that’s about twice as long as it is wide.
Try not to touch the butter with your hands while you work. Instead, lift the edge with your knife to fold it over onto itself. It’s approaching the right softness when it folds, rather than breaking.
Work it until it’s a little thinner than your pinky. Watch the surface to be sure it’s not getting too warm and melting. You want a pliable slab of butter, not a melted puddle. If it starts to get even a little bit shiny, simply put it on a plate and return it to the fridge for a few minutes, allowing it to cool once again.
Pound it into a rough rectangle, then set it aside and pull your dough from the freezer.
You want your dough, and butter to be roughly the same texture. As Grant from Chef Steps points out, if the butter is way harder than the dough, then the dough will simply tear when you begin folding. If the butter’s way softer, it can get too warm and begin soaking into the dough.
People get really intimidated by this recipe, but they needn’t be. Practice makes perfect, but even if you’re a knuckle dragger like me, it’s pretty forgiving.
Step #4: The Fold
Okay, this is the basis of laminated dough. It’s the difference between warm, flaky layers, and a pile of bread and butter.
Lay the dough out on a floured surface, and roll to a rectangle that’s abut three times as long as it is wide. Place your butter slab on top, with the bottoms matching. The butter should be almost as wide as the dough, and roughly 2/3 the length.
Then you’re going to fold it in thirds. Fold the top of the dough down, then fold the bottom up, then rotate 90° as shown in the photos. This process is known simply as “a fold”. Perform the whole thing once and you’ve done a fold, repeat it four times and you’ve done four folds.
That’s it. That’s the move you have to master. Roll the dough out, fold the top down, bottom up, spin 90°. Repeating this is all that’s involved in making laminated dough.
The real trick is to keep your dough cold, so after each fold return it to the freezer for 5 or 10 minutes. As long as your dough stays cold, you keep the butter from melting into the dough. Real pastry chefs will chill dough for hours between folds. But Grant from Chef Steps says that you can be a little less precise when you’re making Kouign Amann. Cold dough is the force-multiplier in getting really great pastries.
Because of the compounding effect of folding layer after layer, it doesn’t take long to reach the three and four-digit layer zone. After a mere four folds, you’ll have more than 240 layers, which is plenty for Kouign Amann. Make your last fold, and return the dough to the freezer to chill before proceeding to the next step.
Part II: Turning Laminated Dough into Kouign Amann
Step #1: Add Sugar
This is the step that takes laminated dough, and turns it into Kouign Amann dough. Clear your work surface, then coat it liberally with granulated sugar.
Roll your dough out on the sugar, coat the top with even more sugar, and continue rolling.
Roll the sheet out until it’s a large rectangle a little thinner than the width of your pinky. When it’s finally rolled out, coat the top with another layer of sugar, and lift the edges to throw sugar underneath it as well.
You should basically be thinking “Wow, this is a ridiculous amount of sugar”. If you’re not, there’s either a problem with your Kouign Amann, or the rest of your diet.
Step#2: Cut & Fold
Trim the edges of your sheet so that it’s rectangular. When you’re cutting the dough, try to cut straight down, lifting the knife before each cut, rather than slicing. Slicing can crimp the edges, inhibiting puff. You don’t want to inhibit puff.
Next, cut the sheet into squares roughly 4″x 4″. They don’t have to be perfect. We’re going to use these squares to make our final pastries. Here I’m going to show you three different ways you can fold your pastries. The first is the most commonly suggested muffin-tin method. It’s perfect for making interestingly shaped, perfectly caramelized, single-serve portions as long as you have a muffin tin.
If, like me, you find yourself elbow-deep in pastry flour only to realize you’re in a house with no muffin tin, you’ll need another solution. That’s where the other two folds come in. They’re my favorites after testing nearly a dozen variations, and judging the results based on final look, caramelization, and general un-fuck-up-ability.
The Muffin Tin Fold
Fold the corners of your squares into the center, and pinch them lightly together. Place each inside a buttered, sugared muffin tin hole.
The Vol au Vent Fold
Fold your square diagonally so it’s a triangle, then make one cut parallel to both of the triangle’s legs, roughly a half-inch from the edge. Don’t let the incisions meet otherwise you’ll just be left with a smaller square of dough.
Open the triangle back up into a diamond, so that the uncut sections are at the top and bottom of the diamond. Take the right outer-corner and fold it across to the left, then repeat by folding the left outer-corner over to the right, as seen in the images below.
Not only does this give you a nice final shape, but it also gives you a pocket in which you can stuff fruit jam, or diced apples tossed in sugar. While fillings of various types are popular, they’re not required.
The Pinwheel Fold
Make four diagonal cuts toward the center of your square, leaving the middle untouched, as shown in the photos below.
Then, fold one corner of each triangle down toward the center of the pastry, overlapping them as you go.
Once again, this gives you a little spot in the center of the pastry to add filling if you choose.
Step #3: Bake
Heat your oven to 400°F.
Take a tablespoon of butter and smear it around the bottom of your baking sheet, then coat it liberally with a handful or two of sugar. Tilt your tray side to side in order to coat the whole bottom. This will give your pastries the patent caramelized bottom which is so important for Kouign Amann.
Place your pastries on the baking sheet, then sprinkle them with more sugar. Finally sprinkle just the tiniest bit of salt over the top of each one. A little salt goes a long way here so really go easy on it. A single two-finger pinch spread between all your pastries should suffice.
Put the tray in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Check them at the fifteen minute mark, and roughly every 2-3 minutes after that.
You’re getting very close when the laminated dough is puffed, and you begin seeing browning on the peaks of the pastries. There is a point, just as the caramelized sugar begins to give off little wisps of smoke, which is when you should pull them. But be careful, these things go from caramelized to burned quickly. Keep an eye on them, and pull them early rather than late.