CAMBRIDGE — There are fads, like cronuts, and then there’s the French pastry kouign amann (pronounced kween ah-mahn). The Breton specialty isn’t new or singularly contrived; it’s lodged firmly in the patisserie tradition of northwestern France. It’s a classic, made in the region for 150 years.
The pastry isn’t as precious as wildly popular tiny French macarons, and doesn’t have the cutesy appeal of a frosted cupcake, but kouign amann has the most important characteristic of all: unequaled flavor. “They’re my favorite thing ever,” says Flour Bakery co-owner Joanne Chang.
At first glance, you might mistake kouign amann for a crusty golden muffin. Look a little closer and you’ll see that the little bronzed cake wears a crown with four points, or a four-leaf clover design. When you tear into one, there are layers upon layers of buttery dough. “It’s a croissant that has extra butter and extra sugar, which ends up caramelizing for a crisp outside,” says Chang, who also co-owns the Asian restaurant Myers & Chang.
Kouign amann, from the words cake (kouign) and butter (amann), look innocent enough, but one bite is all it takes to fall unabashedly in love with the pastry’s crispy, caramelized sugar coating and soft, buttery dough. The confection is now being made by some top pastry chefs and popping up in bakery cases and restaurants around town, including Chang’s Flour bakeries in Fort Point, Back Bay, and Cambridge, Ames Street Deli and Loyal Nine in Cambridge, Towne Stove and Spirits in Back Bay, and Market Square Bakehouse in Amesbury.
We've rarely met a pastry we didn't like here at Washington Post Food Central. But our new favorite treat appearing at bakeries and coffee shops around the area is downright impossible not to love.
Washington, meet the kouign-amann.
What is it? One pithy definition comes from famed New York pastry chef and kouign amann baker Dominique Ansel (he of cronut fame), who describes it as a "caramelized croissant" in his 2014 cookbook, "Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes."
Oh, but there's that whole pronunciation thing too. Think queen ah-MAHN, as in Elizabeth and the capital of Jordan, said Loic Feillet, owner of Capitol Heights-based Panorama Bakery. The kouign-amann, like Feillet and his pastry chef Damien Le Tyrant, hail from the Brittany region of France. The Breton name of the pastry translates to "butter cake."
When Feillet decided to open Panorama's first permanent retail outpost last year in Union Market, he asked Le Tyrant to think of something new to sell. Le Tyrant suggested kouign-amann.
Feillet said he was skeptical but is happy to have been proven wrong. Kouign-amann is now one of the most popular items at the stand. He estimates he sells 200 a week there, in addition to about 300 a week at several area farmers markets. Soon, the pastry will be available to Panorama's wholesale clients as well.
"American customers, they love sugar," Feillet said. "They love something very soft."
Le Tyrant said his is a very traditional take on the pastry, based on the "original" that is said to have been invented in Douarnenez, a coastal community in Brittany that is also famous for its sardines. Outside of Brittany, many French people don't even know what kouign-amann is, Feillet said.
While the proprietor of a bakery in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, Le Tyrant competed five times in Douarnenez's kouign-amann competition. Douarnenez's strict definition requires a ratio of 40 percent dough, 30 percent butter and 30 percent sugar, and that's the formula Le Tyrant uses for Panorama.
Le Tyrant starts with a bread dough that is run through a large pastry sheeter twice to incorporate the butter-sugar mixture. Next, he stamps out 3 1/2-inch rounds that are then put in a mold similar to a muffin tin to bake for about 25 minutes.
The result is more cake than croissant, with moist layers of dough that you can practically peel off one by one, all encased in a crunchy, sugary, amber shell reminiscent of the top layer of a crème brûlée.
Le Tyrant makes more than 50 pastries. Kouign-amann "is one of my favorites," he said.
In France, he'd sometimes include apple or blueberry fillings, but both he and Feillet favor the unadulterated original.
Husband-and-wife team Tom Wellings and Camila Arango make a batch of kouign-amann every day to sell at Bluebird Bakery, their 2-month-old pop-up currently housed at the crowd-funded Prequel space in Chinatown.
"They've been selling well," Wellings said, although he has a theory that some of those who don't order it are intimidated by how to say it.
Shaped Bluebird kouign-amann, ready to rest overnight. (Becky Krystal/The Washington Post)
Like croissants -- Bluebird sells those too -- his kouign-amann consists of a laminated dough into which butter is layered by a series of folds, turns and rests. Wellings's final product represents two days of work. Day one includes creating the yeasted dough, letting it rise, incorporating the butter, rolling and folding. A healthy dose of sugar gets sprinkled on the dough in the final fold. Wellings cuts the dough into 3-inch squares and presses them into the buttered and sugared holes of a standard muffin tin, folding in the corners on top. The crown-shaped pastries rest overnight. The next morning, they rise one last time before being baked, which creates pockets of sugar syrup on the inside and a caramelized shell on the outside.
"It kind of gives you a nice experience, but you don't feel sick after," Wellings said of his smaller take on the pastry, which ended up going over better with customers than a larger one Bluebird tried. Unlike in some other bakeries, you'll see his displayed with the crown side down so as to showcase the burnished exterior.
Bluebird's kouign-amann includes a bit of buckwheat flour as a nod to Brittany, where it's featured in crepes.
Wellings also mixes things up a bit by using sugar flavored with vanilla or cinnamon. He's considering occasionally adding a little fruit or jam inside, but like Feillet and Le Tyrant, he tends to prefer them unfilled.
"It's special and rich enough," Wellings said. "I don't want to make it into a doughnut either. I want it to stand for what it is."
Where to try kouign-amann:
Bluebird Bakery, 918 F St. NW (Prequel), 202-510-9917. $3.25. www.bluebirdbakerydc.com.
Maketto, 1351 H St. NE, 202-838-9972. $4. www.maketto1351.com.
Panorama Bakery, 1309 Fifth St. NE (Union Market). $3.85. Also at the Petworth, 14th & U, Bloomingdale, FreshFarm by the White House and King Street Station farmers markets.
Peet's Coffee & Tea, various locations throughout the D.C. area. $3.25. www.peets.com.
Potomac Pastry, available at Zeke's Coffee, 2300 Rhode Island Ave. NE, 202-733-2646; Compass Coffee, 1535 Seventh St. NW; and La Colombe, 924 N St. NW, 202-289-4850. $3.50-$4.18. www.potomacpastry.com.
Article Washington Post - Becky Krystal
is an organization established to create, facilitate, promote, and sponsor wide-ranging innovative and collaborative cultural and economic projects that strengthen and foster relations and cooperation between the United States of America and the region of Brittany, France.