Kouign Amann – Science and history of a French pastry

If you’ve never heard of kouign amann, you’re not the only one. It’s one of the many types of French pastry that exists, with its origins in a town in Bretagne. French pastry in general has a long rich history and by now French pastry items can be found all over the world. You’re probably familiar with croissants and profiteroles. Just like and cooking or baking tradition, pastry hasn’t developed in a straight line either. Over the past centuries techniques have been refined and improved, leading the great range of pastries available nowadays.

In France especially, patissiers, pastry chefs, have had a prominent place in the French food realm. The French had guilds for both bakers (making bread) and patissiers, making most of the sweeter bakes. Also, there are prominent yearly competitions for pastry chefs where they compete in making the most intricate pastry arrangements you can imagine.

This status probably helped the patissiers is developing those intricate, time consuming pastries. If they weren’t as well respected, they would have probably had to stick with far simpler sweets since no one would be willing to afford those intricate masterpieces. Over the centuries, French pastry developed and out came those staples that we now all know. Even though we’d like to see developments in a straight line, with a nice year of invention, that simply doesn’t apply to most foods, as is also the case for most of French pastry. They’re not an invention per se, they’re a slow development over time.

That brings us back to the Kouign Amann, one of those many French pastries with a somewhat clear history.

The origin of Kouign Amann

Kouign Amann is a pastry from the Breton area in France. Translated it literally means ‘butter cake’ in the Breton language. It originated in the town of Douarnenez and is believed to have been ‘invented’ by the patissier Yves-Rene Scordia, but clearly builds upon other techniques that the baker must have been using at the time. It has quite a lot of similarities to croissants for instance and uses principles of caramelization which were probably used at the time for creme brulée.

Characteristic of this buttery pastry is the high amount of butter used in it. Even though butter tended to be more expensive than flour in most of Northern Europe at the time, the Bretagne region was known for its butter production. Therefore, just hypothesizing here, it may have been that this village had plenty of butter and could thus create this formidable treat.

In the past 20 years or so the Kouign Amann has spread way beyong the Bretagne region in France and pastry stores all over the world sell it. However, it remains quite an exclusive exquisite treat, which makes sense seeing the amount of work (and butter) that goes into it.

freshly baked kouign amann close up
One version of a Kouign Amman, notice all the different layers in the pastry. This version has only little caramelized sugar though, most have a lot more.

What is a Kouign Amann?

So what is a Kouign Amann? It’s a layered pastry of dough with butter, using similar techniques are a croissant. The special characteristic of the pastry though is that it has plenty sugar in and on top of it as well which caramelizes. As a result, you end up with a beautiful layered puffy pastry with strands of sweetness in between.

There are a lot of ways to make a Kouign Amann. Some methods focus on creating a lot of layers in the pastry for proper lamination. The sugar will only be added towards the end since otherwise it might interfer with the layers. Other methods though make less layers and will add the sugar at the beginning so it’s mixed through completely.

The video below has a great demonstration of the traditional way of making a Kouign Amann. The video is in French, but if you don’t speak French, just look at the still of the baker. (If you don’t speak French you may want to skip the first 1.24 min since it’s just weighing out of the dough with some background information).

Science of a Kouign Amann

There are two main aspects of making a good Kouign Amann. The first is to create those layers in the pastry and the second it to develop some proper caramelization. Both have been discusses extensively before on the blog, so we won’t dig into them again here, have a look at the relevant pages if you’re interested!

Kougin Amann recipe

This recipe is based on the one from Paul Hollywood, as demonstrated during the Great British Bake Off masterclasses.

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freshly baked kouign amann close up

French pastry – Kouign Amann

  • Author: Science Chef
  • Prep Time: 2 hours
  • Cook Time: 30 mins
  • Total Time: 2 hours 30 mins
  • Yield: 12

Ingredients

  • 300g flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp yeast
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 235ml water
  • 250g butter
  • 100g sugar
  • Sugar for dusting

Instructions

  1. Mix the flour, yeast, salt and water together and knead until it’s become a soft and flexible dough. If it feels very stiff, add some more water. It will get a bit more flexible after it has risen.
  2. Cover the dough and leave to rise for about 1,5h. It should have clearly increased in size and it should be a light and flexible dough.
  3. Take the butter from the fridge and place it on some plastic foil. Cover the top with plastic foil as well. Now use a rolling pin and smash down the butter until it’s become a nice flat bit of butter, preferably in a somewhat rectangular or square shape.
  4. Put back in the fridge to solidify.

Here’s where the lamination starts

  1. Take the dough out of the bowl and push out the air.
  2. Roll the dough into a size about twice the size of the butter. If it’s a little smaller than that it’s not a problem, it’s a flexible dough, so you can stretch it quite easily.
  3. Place the butter in the middle of the dough and fold the dough over the butter. Make sure that the dough is fully encased.
  4. Roll out the dough into a rectangle and fold it by taking a third of the dough and folding it over the middle third of the dough. Take the opposite third now and fold this over. You should have three layers on top of each other.
  5. Cover in plastic and leave to cool in the fridge (you can continue rolling, if you’re not as experienced though, resting it in the fridge will help ensure the butter stays solid).
  6. Roll and fold again, rest the dough in the fridge.
  7. Now roll out the dough one more time and sprinkle with plenty of sugar. Use a rolling pin to help the sugar stick to the dough, this is quite a tricky bit, it tends to want to fall out again, but keep it in.
  8. Fold the dough again. I’ve found it easier to now rest it again so that the sugar doesn’t interfer too much with rolling, but you can also continue straight away.
  9. Roll out the dough one more time (the sugar will make this harder since it prevents the folds from sticking to each other cause them to slide alongside one another).
  10. There are several ways to now continue. You can cut the dough into 12 squares, fold the corners of each square together and put them in a greased muffin pan. Also, you can leave out the muffin pan and flatten the structure again.
  11. Leave to prove for at least another 30 minutes, preferably longer. They should puff up nicely, making for an airier Kouign Amann.
  12. Sprinkle with another generous dust of sugar (really, add quite a bit, this will caramelize beautifully).
  13. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200C for about 20-30 minutes, until they’re a nice golden brown.

Looking for photos? The Kitchn has some great images.

Sources

Great British Chefs, A history of pastry (with a focus on British pastry though), link

France Today, Taste the terroir: Kougin-Amman, Brittany’s pastry of choice, link

Eater, Meet the Kouign Amann: The Obscure French Pastry Making it Big in America,link

A-brest, Le Kouign Amann, link, discussing various possible origins of the Kouign Amann (in French)

David Lebovitz, Kouign Amann recipe, link, he was into making Kouign Amann long before others were, great photos and illustrations

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