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The Story of France’s Most Extraordinary Pastry

Food52 logo Food52 10/16/2019 Caitlin Raux Gunther
a tray of food on a plate © Provided by Food52

It’s been called “gold in butter.” Yann Queffélec, French author and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, described it as “heavy, glazed, sublime, and melting.” As told to Slate, “There is as much butter as sugar in it.”

It’s the kouign amann (that’s kween a-mahn)—or “butter cake” in Breton, the Celtic language that’s native to Brittany and includes fairytale names like Gwenaëlle (girl) and Gwendal (boy). Think of the pastry as a sugary, caramelized croissant, crispy on the outside and densely moist inside; the bread-y version of canelés; a sophisticated muffin.

There’s some controversy about the kouign amann’s exact origins, but most agree that it comes from Finistère—literally, the “end of the land”—the westernmost tip of Brittany and an appropriately whimsical birthplace for the most extraordinary of French baked goods.

According to one story, the invention of the kouign amann was a fortuitous accident. Around 1860, in the Finistère town of Douarnenez, a baker named Yves-René Scordia ran out of desserts and improvised with leftover bread dough. He combined the “laminating” technique for making croissants—repeatedly folding cold butter into rolled-out sheets of dough—with a healthy amount of sugar, and the result was a pastry with a caramelized, golden crust and a hint of browned butter.

Others have proffered different origins. One restaurateur says his wife’s grandmother invented the kouign amann in Scaër, but per her recipe, the butter is already mixed into the dough.

In an effort to preserve their pastry heritage, a group of bakers and patissiers from Douarnenez went so far as to form a kouign amann association. Their manifesto clearly states their goals: to appreciate and protect the authentic kouign amann, and eventually, to obtain an indication géographique protégée, or IGP—an official label that indicates a food product’s geographic origins, like you’d see on a wine from Bordeaux or cheese from Savoie.

The association goes on to describe the characteristics of an authentic kouign amann: the quality (immaculate), freshness (same-day only), and appearance (it should look almost too cooked, due to its deep caramelization). Also, they explain, it should be presented right-side up, not upside down as in some other cities that are not Douarnenez*. In English, those are what we’d call “fighting words.”

Unlike daintier pastries like the macaron, the kouign amann is beautiful in its rustic simplicity; a sum that is delicious due to the high quality of its parts: just dough, sugar, and butter.

...a sugary, caramelized croissant, crispy on the outside and densely moist inside; the bread-y version of canelés; a sophisticated muffin.

In the past decade or so, the kouign amann has made its way across the pond and into high-end bakeries in the United States like San Francisco’s b. Patisserie and New York’s Dominique Ansel Bakery, the latter of which many credit with putting the KA on the map outside of the “hexagon” (as the French call their country).

Though better known for his Cronut®—the pastry that induced city block–long lines, a level of fandom to which only sneaker junkies and Taylor Swift fans, or Swifties, might relate—Ansel’s individual-sized kouign amann, the DKA, comes close to pastry perfection. Rich and buttery with an ethereal, flaky inside and a crispy, caramelized exterior, it’s admittedly different from the original.

While Ansel’s version looks like an inverted muffin, a typical Breton kouign amann is large and round like a nine-inch pie, cakier on one side and crispier on the other, where the excess sugar hardens in the mold. Bakeries typically sell it by weight and people serve it by the slice.

Not long ago, I traveled from Paris to Brittany. I was there to visit my grandparents-in-law with my husband, Guillaume, and daughter, Mimi. But I was also there on another mission: to taste the authentic kouign amann on its home turf.

As it turns out, Bretons are very protective of their prized pastry, and passionate about what a true kouign amann does make.

Brittany is a verdant, hilly region that occupies the top left corner of the hexagon. It contains several microclimates, among them prime land for agriculture, a generous coastline for fishing, and expansive green pastures for well-fed cows.

Those Breton cows make some of the country’s finest dairy products, including butter, the best of which is flecked with coarse, locally harvested sea salt. The addition of salt preserves the quality and the natural flavors of the milk with which the butter is made. And, as any baker will tell you, exceptional butter makes for exceptional baked goods, known as lichouseries, from the Breton word for "gourmand": lichou (which sounds very de-lichous).

Guillaume’s grandparents, Genevieve and Emile, or Mamie and Papi, are both from Normandy but have been spending their summers in Brittany since the late '60s, when they purchased a house in Pleurtuit, a quiet maritime neighborhood near larger Saint Malo. The house looks out on a bay that feeds into the Atlantic, where commercial fishermen used to set out every morning, but today, it’s mostly a place for French and British vacationers to park their dinghies.

Emile had a long career as a notaire, or notary, a public officer whose job was to ensure that contracts were executed to a T. We have spent many nights at their home and not once have I ever seen him in pyjamas—and I wake up early! Most mornings, while I’m reaching for the coffee pot and wearing some version of lady boxers, he’s already in pressed khakis, a collared shirt, and a season-appropriate leather shoe. He never leaves the house without a hat.

These days, Emile is mostly retired and, whenever we visit, dedicates himself to preparing exquisite meals—like fresh skate in cream sauce with capers and homemade tarte tartin. On the day we arrived, there was a pork roast in the oven and Emile was preparing mackerel rillette, a mashed fish salad with lemon juice and chopped chives that reminds me of the white fish salad at the kosher grocery stores in upstate New York.

When we visit Mamie and Papi, we tend to plan our day around meal times. It was late morning, meaning I still had time to travel to a nearby boulangerie and pick up a kouign amann before lunch. But first, I wanted to get the local take on what makes the KA so good.

“The land of butter, isn’t it?” I asked them.

My French has recently graduated from elementary to precocious middle schooler, but sometimes I still struggle to communicate.

Genevieve and Emile looked slightly confused, so I tried again.

“Brittany, it has the best butter in the world, no?” I asked. Genevieve started to nod, but she didn’t quite agree.

“Well, Normandy makes the best butter,” she corrected me. “But yes, Brittany makes very good butter, too.” The French are very precise about their regional foods.

They also take care with details and will go the extra mile to make something a touch more delicious. That’s not to say they’re food snobs—Guillaume loves himself a box of microwavable spaghetti carbonara, the kind you buy at autoroute rest areas. But high or low, they know what they like, and how they like it most.

When it was time for lunch, we sat at an outside table and passed around plates to serve ourselves: thin-sliced roast pork, cold haricots verts, a tomato salad. Papi emerged from the kitchen carrying the wooden carving board. He hovered near Mamie and poured the roast juices over her meat.

“Emile! The sauce is already there!” she motioned to a small silver boat filled with dark juice from the roast.

He shrugged then poured the rest of the sauce on his own plate.

A few days into our visit, Guillaume, Mimi, and I visited the old town of Saint Malo, a fortified city enclosed by a high stone wall.

“The corsairs used to live here,” Guillaume told me. “Basically, the king’s official pirates.”

“That’s a thing?” I asked.

True enough, in the 17th and 18th centuries, French pirates roamed the seas and looted foreign ships. They’d return to Saint Malo and split their booty with the king. Today, the robbery comes in the form of overpriced crepes and seafood platters sold to unwitting tourists. After our lunch at a busy brasserie near one of the city’s entrance, I counted myself among the plundered.

While it’s no Nice, Saint Malo draws a healthy number of visitors each year. We walked past a man dressed as a pirate entertaining a group of children and toward a busy bakery called Kouign Amann de Saint Malo. Tourist trap? Maybe—but I figured we’d be able to find a representative kouign amann.

“He’s definitely drunk,” Guillaume said, motioning to the pirate.

I looked back and saw him hopping back and forth like a court jester and pulling coins from behind children’s ears.

Behind the glass display case were various types of kouign amann: nature (or plain ones), fruit-topped, and even nutella kouign amanns. I was certain that the Douarnenez would not be happy with this sacrilege.

I decided on a kouign amann nature, individual-sized and coiled like a snail shell. I ate it right away, unwinding the still-warm layers like I would a glazed Cinnabon at the mall. Looks-wise, it bore little relation to the real kouign amann, but it hit all of the characteristics of structure and taste: buttery and light on the inside, crispy and caramelized on the outside, and highly satisfying.

By this point, our pirate friend was lying down, pointy black hat resting gently over his face. And I, too, felt a warm haziness settle over me.

To get a better idea of the kouign amann’s place in Breton culture, I spoke over the phone with Charles Kergaravat, a resident of Morbihan and founder of Breizh Amerika, a nonprofit that promotes cultural relations between the U.S. and Brittany. (Breizh means Brittany in the local tongue.)

Though raised in New York City, his parents are native Bretons, and he spent every summer there growing up. In those days, Charles told me, the kouign amann wasn’t as popular, even in Brittany—perhaps because they didn’t travel as well as other pastries like the gateau breton.

The kouign amann has to be eaten the same day—or, as the Douarnenez association specifies, “up to 10 hours” after its fabrication.

I asked Charles whether the kouign amanns of Finistère are superior to those of the rest of the region.

“That’s probably true,” he said. “But I’d say a downhome baker in any small town in Brittany might do it better than a fancy pastry shop in a big city.”

Because there’s one big difference, Charles explained, between the kouign amann and other pastries: “You need to be more of a baker than a pastry chef to make a good one.”

The kouign amann may be eaten as a dessert, or at le quatre-heures, the French version of teatime. But at its core, it’s still made with bread dough: four parts dough, three parts butter, three parts sugar. It’s the kind of thing you master by dedication to kneading and laminating and proofing and watching the results; by reaching a level of expertise that only a lifetime boulanger can normally achieve.

Is there a most authentic version of the kouign amann? Is one region’s preparation more delicious than another?

Who’s to say. The kouign amann may very well have been invented in Finistere, but taste is a matter of opinion. Like the best bagel in New York or barbecue in Texas, it’s something the merits of which the locals can argue, and we, the visitors, are the lucky benefactors.

The Douarnenez will continue to protect their version of the kouign amann with a logo that reads: Véritable KOUIGN-AMANN de DOUARNENEZ. And the rest of the world will continue to bastardize the original, sometimes for better and sometimes for the worse—and that’s okay, too.

At the end of another lunch with my in-laws, I asked if it was time for dessert. I scored a beautiful-looking kouign amann at a small stall in a local market and wanted to share it.

“Not before the cheese,” Genevieve told me. Of course, the cheese. As the 19th-century French food writer, Brillat-Savarin, once wrote, "Un dessert sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un oeil"—a dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman without an eye. (His words, not mine.)

When it was finally time for dessert, Emile cut the kouign amann into small slivers, and I brought out a pot of coffee. The stacked layers were light and flaky. It was so caramelized, almost candied on the bottom, that some of the hard sugar got stuck in my teeth. This, I remembered reading, is a no-no for the Douarnenez. But in my American opinion, it was the best one I’d had so far.

I saw Emile reach for the knife and cut himself another sliver.

Kouign Amann

By Yossy Arefi

  • 1 cup water at 110ºF
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces salted butter, cool but pliable
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • additional butter to grease molds
  • additional sugar for rolling

View Full Recipe

Related video: Pan Bagnat: Le French Tuna Salad Sandwich 

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