This is the Pastry Basket, a series in which Eater profiles noteworthy breakfast pastries. Up next: the kouign amann.
Ask anyone to name the hottest pastry of the 21st century thus far and they'll have exactly one answer: the Cronut. The clever hybrid pastry from NYC's genius patissier Dominique Ansel burst onto the scene in mid-2013, and the world would never be the same. But while New Yorkers and tourists alike were busy standing in line for hours on end to get their mitts on the croissant-doughnut lovechild, another Ansel offering just as tasty was readily available — no Craigslist scalpers or hired line-waiters necessary.
Think of the kouign amann as a denser version of a croissant, and then gild that buttery, flaky lily with a generous dose of sugar.
A classic French pastry called the kouign amann (pronounced kween ah-mon, plural "kouignoù amann") had been sold at the SoHo bakery since it first opened in 2011, and the buttery, crunchy baked good vaguely resembling a crown got its own fair share of attention: Dubbed the "DKA" by Ansel — for Dominique's kouign amann — the bakery sold out of them every day during its first six months in business, with the New York Times soon declaring that the pastry was "having a moment among foodies." And while the kouign amann has never quite reached Cronut levels of fame, this rather obscure French viennoiserie has gained a surprisingly strong foothold here in the U.S.
For the uninitiated, think of the kouign amann as a denser version of a croissant, and then gild that buttery, flaky lily with a generous dose of sugar. Ansel aptly describes it as a "caramelized croissant," and it indeed shares some similar genetics with the ubiquitous crescent-shaped breakfast pastry: Both are made from laminated doughs, a labor-intensive process that involves layering dough with sheets of butter, then folding it, rolling it out, and repeating that multiple times to create hundreds of layers. The kouign amann has the addition of sugar sprinkled between the layers; in the oven, the butter-sugar mixture creates pockets of sweetness in the pastry's soft, moist center, and a crispy caramel-like coating on the burnished exterior.
While the kouign amann's similarities to the ever-popular croissant gives pastry fans a familiar point of reference, kouign experts insist the two are actually quite different. Both are made with a laminated dough to create many flaky layers; but while croissant dough is enriched with milk and butter, the true kouign amann is made with what's known to bakers as a "lean" dough — a simple mixture of yeast, flour, salt, and water, with no fat or sweetener.
But that hardly means this rich pastry is low in calories, given all the butter and sugar that gets added between the dough layers. As pastry guru and American-in-Paris David Lebovitz wrote back in 2005, "it is strictly forbidden to think about diets while you're making a kouign amann."
"They defy every rule of stuff that you would normally put in your [pastry] case," says Romina Rasmussen, owner of acclaimed Salt Lake City bakery Les Madeleines, where she's been baking the kouign amann since early 2005. "No one can pronounce it and no one's ever heard of it, yet they fly out the door."
The same year Rasmussen began stocking the kouign amann in her pastry case, Lebovitz was blogging about his own love affair with them. An acclaimed cookbook author and former San Francisco pastry chef who cut his teeth at Alice Waters' hallowed Chez Panisse, Lebovitz left the industry in 1999 to move to Paris and focus on his writing career, chronicling his French adventures in a long-running blog at his eponymous website. "Is there anything more fabulous than something created through the wonder and miracle of caramelization?" he wrote in 2005, marveling over the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts combination of butter, sugar, and salt that a kouign amann represents.
"The kouign amann defies every rule of what you would normally put in your pastry case."
Originating in the coastal region of France known as Brittany, 15 or so years ago the pastries were rarely found in other parts of France, let alone the United States. "It's not just an obscure pastry here — it's obscure in France," Rasmussen points out. A French customer at Les Madeleines once marveled that he had to come to a bakery in Salt Lake City to learn about a pastry from his own country.
"Kouign amann was this thing you had to go to Brittany to get because only they knew how to do it," Lebovitz explains. "A lot of Americans don't understand, France is still very regional. You can't come to Paris and be like, ‘I want bouillabaisse.' You have to go to Marseille for that."
If the name, which literally translates to "butter cake," doesn't quite sound like any French you've ever heard before, that's because it's actually Breton — a Celtic language that has more in common with Welsh than Français. Beginning in the fifth century, Celtic migrants from Britain came across the English Channel to settle on the rugged coastline of France's far northwestern peninsula, and to this day the region retains a culture that feels distinct from the rest of the country.
While the kouign amann may be Brittany's most prized pastry, the area is more widely known for two other native products: fleur de sel, the flaky sea salt that's found in every high-end professional kitchen in America, and extra-rich butter from the cows that graze on its bountiful green pastures, both of which are essential ingredients for traditional kouign amann. Rasmussen believes at least part of the kouign amann's surge in popularity in America can be attributed to its alignment with one of our more ubiquitous food trends: salted caramel, arguably one of the biggest flavor crazes of the 2000s so far (second only to bacon).
To Rasmussen's knowledge, she was the third person in America, and the first west of the Mississippi, to sell kouign amann to the public. (Her only known predecessors were Florian Bellanger — whom Food Network junkies will recognize as a judge on Cupcake Wars — of the since-closed Manhattan spinoff of iconic Paris gourmet shop Fauchon, and a Saratoga Springs, New York bakery called Mrs. London's.) Les Madeleines' kouign amann were featured on popular Food Network series The Best Thing I Ever Ate in 2010, at which point Rasmussen says they were inundated with mail orders and curious visitors from all over: "It happened basically overnight. The show aired and it just exploded. We started out making them one day a week, but people would show up and be like, 'I drove from Idaho to get one!' So we started them making them everyday."
Food & Wine contributed to the kouign amann craze by naming it pastry of the year in 2012. Further evidence of the pastry's rise to prominence: In 2013 a proof-and-bake version landed in the freezer section at beloved grocer Trader Joe's, and they were a fixture in Starbucks' pastry case for a brief period during the chain's failed La Boulange experiment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, North America's French epicenter Montreal has its fair share of bakeries producing kouign amann, including one that shares its name: Patisserie Kouign Amann, located in the city's artsy Plateau neighborhood, bakes pizza-sized versions of the pastries and sells them by the triangular slice, much like its traditional counterparts in Brittany. They're also wildly popular in Japan, perhaps the only nation that takes French pastries even more seriously than France: When Dominique Ansel Bakery opened its Tokyo branch in 2015, it sold more than 1,200 DKAs in its first day.
"There are plenty of bad baguettes in France."
In the U.S., they're more typically seen as individual pastries, with the dough baked inside muffin tins or pastry rings to keep their shape. Unencumbered by years of tradition, some American pastry chefs are also using the kouign amann's delicious simplicity as a springboard for experimentation. At San Francisco's three-year-old B. Patisserie, the kouign amann is pastry chef/owner Belinda Leong's signature offering, and one that's won her a cult-like following citywide. Beyond the regular kouign nature, Leong — who staged at the legendary Pierre Herme in Paris — also does unusual seasonal flavors like pineapple-pink peppercorn, coconut, and sesame.
Some of B. Patisserie's devotees claim Leong's version of the kouign is even better than what can be had in Brittany. While those statements may raise some eyebrows in France, Lebovitz points out that just because a dish is native to a particular country doesn't mean that every version served there is top-notch: "There are plenty of bad baguettes in France and bad hamburgers in America."
Certainly one can argue about issues of culinary "authenticity" until they're blue in the face, but perhaps the most important question raised by the kouign amann's popularity is: Should it be eaten for breakfast or dessert? It depends on who you ask: Lebovitz says he tends to think of it as the latter, while Rasmussen classifies it as a viennoiserie, a breakfast pastry in the same category as croissants. But both seem to agree that there's really no wrong time of day to enjoy the Breton pastry's sweet-and-salty, buttery crunch. And perhaps best of all, you won't even have to queue up for hours to get one.
Whitney Filloon is Eater's assistant news editor.
Editor: Hillary Dixler
ChefSteps explains the process of making kouign amann