According to legend, about 160 years ago in Douarnenez, a small seaside town in the northwest corner of France, Yves René Scordia ran out of goods to sell in his bakery. The resourceful baker looked around his shop and spotted lean bread dough, sugar, and sea-salty Breton butter. He tucked a slab of the butter and a hefty amount of sugar inside the dough, rolled it out, folded it, and repeated the process before plopping the mass into a round pan, scoring the top, and sliding it into the oven.
As it baked, some of the butter and sugar leaked out of the dough and pooled at the bottom of the pan, where it cooked down into a subtly salty caramel. The butter that remained in the folds created steam that caused the layers to puff and separate into thin sheets that were soaked in butter and melted sugar. Scordia turned his creation out of the pan, cut it into wedges, served it hot to enchanted customers, and the kouign amann (the Breton name for “butter cake,” pronounced “KWEE-nyah-MAHN”) was born.
Rustic yet refined and distinctly salty and sweet, the pastry remains a hyper-regional specialty that’s eaten any time of day and celebrates the exceptional butter and salt produced along northwestern France’s hilly, rugged coastline. (Except for a few bakeries in Montreal, traditional kouign amann is hard to find on this side of the Atlantic, though some American bakeries make kouignettes, muffin tin–size versions of the Breton icon that are more akin to croissants.) But its appeal is universal: Each bite reads like a mash-up of a croissant’s striated structure and a lacquered version of the caramel-like goo you might find coating a sticky bun. Traditional recipes also call for scoring an elegant diamond pattern into the surface of the dough, brushing it with milk, and showering it with sugar before baking, which renders the top attractively golden and crunchy.
Butter That's Worth Its Salt
Elaine Khosrova, author of Butter: A Rich History (2016), says Breton butter, like a fine wine, exhibits strong “terroir.” “Great soil, good water, clean air, the right animals, beautiful salt—Brittany just has the perfect combination,” she says. Thanks to the region’s coastal climate and rare breeds of cattle, Breton butter is golden and sweet, with a long, creamy finish. It is also distinctively saline. Salt became part of Brittany’s butter-making tradition because the area boasts abundant deposits of natural sea salt beds; plus, the region was never subject to France’s infamous harsh salt tax. Today, Breton butter is sold in three styles: doux (unsalted), demi-sel (containing 0.5–3 percent salt), and sel (containing 3 percent or more salt, about double the salt content of American supermarket salted butter). –Alyssa Vaughn
Before I studied up on how to make my own, I figured I was in for a day’s worth of intricate pastry work. So imagine my delight when I watched some YouTube footage of Douarnenez bakers at work and realized that kouign amann also happens to be one of the simplest, fastest forms of layered pastry that you can make. Not only did they accomplish the series of turns (a baker’s term for the repeated rolling and folding sequence) in a single session rather than resting and refrigerating the dough between turns as you would to create a croissant’s ultradelicate structure, but shaping the dough into a single large round was clearly much simpler than cutting, rolling, and resting triangles of dough to create individual pastries. This was an afternoon project that impressed like an all-day affair, and I couldn’t wait to get rolling.
On the Block
Enclosing a thick slab (or “block,” as bakers call it) of butter in lean, yeasted dough and repeatedly folding and rolling the package into thin sheets is called lamination, and it’s the fundamental process behind layered pastries such as kouign amann and croissants. Pro bakers make it look easy, but it can be tricky for the average home cook to do because the butter is prone to cracking and breaking into chunks, especially if the dough and fat are not equally firm.
My solve, which I routinely use when making croissants, is to start with a thinner butter block that I make by enclosing 8 ounces of butter (salted, in this case) in an “envelope” that I fashion from parchment paper and rolling it into a slim rectangle. The envelope helps contain the butter so that it’s just the right shape to fit the dough and thin enough that there’s less risk of it breaking up when I roll it out. I also make sure that the butter block and dough are equally malleable by chilling both components before rolling. After mixing up a basic lean dough (all-purpose flour, water, salt, and a modicum of yeast for flavor and just a bit of lift) and forming the butter block, I refrigerate both for about an hour. Of course, cold butter is much firmer than cold dough, so when I’m ready to start laminating, I let the chilled block soften on the counter for a few minutes while I superchill the cold dough in the freezer to firm it up even more.
Butter Block Reform
So here’s my trick: Embed the sugar (along with a little extra salt, for pronounced salinity) into the butter block by paddling the ingredients together in a stand mixer. That way, there’s minimal contact between the dough and the sugar and thus virtually no risk of tearing or sticking.
Make a Butter Block “Envelope”
1. FOLD 18-inch length of parchment in half to create rectangle.
2. FOLD over 3 open sides of rectangle to form 6 by 9-inch rectangle with enclosed sides. Crease folds firmly.
3. OPEN parchment packet and place butter mixture in center.
4. FOLD parchment over mixture and press to ½-inch thickness. Refold parchment at creases to enclose mixture.
5. TURN packet over so flaps are underneath and roll until butter fills packet, taking care to achieve even thickness.
Those tactics gave me a solid start with my kouign amann lamination, but I underestimated how challenging it would be to incorporate sugar into the folds as well. Watching the Douarnenez bakers deftly work fistfuls of it into the dough along with the butter block, I figured I would easily do the same. But as soon as I scattered sugar over the butter, enclosed it all, and started to roll, my inexperience showed. The sugar shifted unevenly, and as I folded the package into thirds, turned it, and rolled and folded it again into thinner sheets, the abrasive particles tore gaping holes in the dough. It also pulled moisture from the dough, and that moisture dissolved more sugar, which made the whole package sticky and difficult to handle. As the pastry baked, butter flowed out of the large holes before the layers set, so the dough melded into a squat cake-like structure that fried in the buttery flood.
Kouignettes: Not Just Mini Kouign Amann
If you’re familiar with the term kouign amann (“KWEE-nyah-MAHN”), you might think it refers to the flaky, cupcake-size confections that show up occasionally in American and Parisian bakeries. But this diminutive style is actually a kouignette: a riff on the robust Breton original that features a more delicate structure (the result of more involved lamination); less sugar; and sometimes embellishments such as chocolate, fruit, or nuts swirled into the pastry. In fact, kouignettes bear a stronger resemblance to lightly sweetened croissants than they do to their namesake.
Clearly, I’d have to come up with a more foolproof approach for managing the sugar. Decreasing it wasn’t an option; I needed at least ¾ cup for sufficient sweetness, and I also wanted to add a little extra salt to match the pronounced salinity of Breton butter. But I could try changing the way I incorporated those ingredients. I transferred my next batch of dough from the mixer bowl to a plate, put it in the fridge to relax, and then—in a break from tradition—used the mixer to combine the butter with the sugar and a little salt just until the mixture was uniform. Then I proceeded to wrap, roll, and chill my butter block before laminating the dough.
My experiment was a breakthrough. Embedding the sugar in the butter limited contact between it and the dough, thus minimizing the stickiness caused by excess moisture and the tears caused by abrasion. In fact, I got through both turns and the final shaping of the dough with minimal stickiness and no big rips. The only downside was that without holes in the dough, there were no escape routes for trapped air, and the kouign amann ballooned in the oven, distorting the lovely layers I’d built. But I had another easy, unorthodox fix: air vents, which I poked into my next batch of dough after scoring it. Going forward, I also made a point to generously flour my work surface and move quickly through the folding steps to avoid any potential sticking.
Here, finally, was a kouign amann that boasted all the trappings of well-made laminated pastry—uniformly puffed structure, distinct inner layers, unapologetic butteriness—along with the slightly chewy, salted, caramelly bottom and delectably crunchy top that make this Breton sweet a standout. And it was on the table in a matter of hours. Layered pastry newbies, this one’s for you.