Kouign amann was my home baking Shangri-La

Photo: Aimee Levitt

The first season I watched of The Great British Baking Show was Season 5, the one with Nancy and Chetna and Bingate, and my love was cemented during Week 7 when the contestants had to make kouign amann during the technical challenge. This is because kouign amann is the most enchanting pastry ever invented. It combines the crispy pastry layers of a croissant, but prior to baking, it’s covered in even more butter and sugar so that it caramelizes in the oven.

I discovered it in a bakery in Chicago a few years before the GBBS episode aired, and very quickly I learned how to pronounce it (“queen ah-mahnn”), how to spell it, what it means (“butter cake” in Breton), and all the places where I could find it. What I did not know was how to make it, but that is what GBBS is for.

After watching the contestants struggle through that particular challenge, I decided that I would be content to experience kouign amann strictly as an eater. Or, in a pinch, a heater-upper of the frozen Trader Joe’s product.

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And then I came to work at this website.

“Go learn to make kouign amann!” my editors urged me on my very first day. (Was it really only two weeks ago?) “Go live your baking dreams!”

And so I wrote to Ellen King, the co-owner and head baker of Hewn, a bakery in Evanston, Illinois, that I’d written about before; King and I had once spent an afternoon together harvesting wheat, a true bonding experience. Hewn specializes in handmade bread from native Midwestern grains, but it sells an excellent kouign amann, and King very kindly offered to show me how it was done.

First I would have to make the dough. Hewn uses a sheeter, a machine that’s kind of like an old-fashioned pasta maker, to roll out its pastries, so its bakers use a heavy, sturdier dough that would be challenging for a home baker armed only with a rolling pin. King recommended I mix up a batch of the croissant dough recipe from Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery & Cafe Cookbook (reprinted below). It’s an easy mixture of milk, flour, sugar, salt, vanilla, and yeast that rises in the refrigerator. I woke up at 6 in the morning to do it and felt like a real baker.

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Photo: Aimee Levitt

The dough I brought with me to Hewn was very soft, requiring quite a bit of extra flour to roll out smoothly without sticking. (In her cookbook, Mackie recommends three tablespoons of flour, but King just tossed handfuls from a big bowl on the counter, which looked way more cheffy and impressive.) Then it went into the fridge for a few minutes to rest and chill.

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The reason croissants and their cousins kouign amann and morning buns are so crispy and buttery is because they alternate very thin layers of dough with equally thin layers of butter. The butter and dough must always remain distinct. The process of folding and rolling out the butter and dough is called lamination, and the reason I never made my own kouign amann was because lamination scared me. (You could cheat when making puff pastry and shred the butter and mix it into the dough—which I have done—but with croissant dough, King says, the butter needs to be its own continuous layer.)

First you make a butter block by pounding 12 ounces of room-temperature butter into a thin sheet roughly two-thirds the size of the rolled-out sheet of dough. (Note: “room temperature” means the magic temperature between hard as a rock directly from the fridge and greasy after sitting on the counter all day. It should be soft and pliable, like Play-Doh, but if it veers toward melty, it needs to go back into the fridge posthaste.) King used a rolling pin, and I thought it looked very satisfying to whack at butter like that, but she said it quickly loses its charm if you have to do it multiple times in a row.

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The butter spent a few minutes in the fridge, too, so that it would be the same temperature as the dough and not so cold that it would crack when it came time to fold it. Then, you introduce the dough to the butter.

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And wrap the butter in the dough.

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And then you roll it all out into a 12-by-24-inch sheet. Ideally, the butter layer and the dough layers should all the exact same size without any patches of what King calls “dead dough,” but if you’re a home baker, it’s not too huge a deal if they don’t perfectly overlap. There will be more layers!

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Then you fold one side to the middle and then the other, like a letter.

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Then it goes into the fridge for more resting and chilling. You do this twice more. (King suggests rolling in the direction of the “lip,” the top of the final fold, first rolling it 12 inches wide, and then turning it to roll it out to 24 inches long.) I honestly have no idea how the GBBS bakers did this all in three-and-a-half hours. I guess that’s what made it a technical challenge.

King made me do the last fold at home. It was not as nice and smooth as hers. A little bit of butter peeped through, which is not supposed to happen; it’s a perfect opportunity for the butter to leak out and make for a greasy pastry. I plugged the hole with a stray bit of dough and hoped for the best. After some more chill and rest, I rolled the dough out for the last time and cut it into four-inch squares.

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The dough rose again overnight in the fridge and got a little puffy.

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And then, finally, finally, it was time to bake! I lined the cups of a muffin tin with softened butter and sugar and sprinkled more sugar into the center of each pastry square. Then I folded each corner to the middle, like an envelope, and stuffed the pastries into the muffin tin.

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I may have said, “On your mark, get set, bake!” (At 385 degrees for about 15 minutes, checking every five minutes.)

My apartment smelled amazing.

And then I had kouign amann. Coming out of my own oven!

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I could hear a little Paul Hollywood voice in my head scolding: “underbaked.” But since I wasn’t on TV, I could tell him to shut up. The kouign amann still tasted sublime, sweet and crisp and yeasty (and I still had a few more that I could bake for longer). And there were layers, or as Mary Berry says, “lairs”! What more could anyone possibly ask for?

Well, okay, I haven’t completely conquered my fear of lamination since I didn’t make the butter block myself. But now I feel as though maybe I could. Really what I need to do is to pretend I know how to do it and proceed with confidence the way I do when I roll out pie crust. But maybe that’s the key to mastering any new kitchen skill.

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Photo: Aimee Levitt

Croissant Dough

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dried yeast
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

Pour milk into a saucepan and warm over medium heat. Remove from stove when milk is warm to the touch, taking care not to over-heat. Transfer to a large bowl and sprinkle yeast over the top. Add sugar and vanilla extract and mix with a whisk until dry ingredients are dissolved. Let sit for five minutes while yeast blooms.

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In a separate medium bowl, combine salt and flour and mix with a wooden spoon. Add flour mixture to the bowl of milk and stir until all ingredients are incorporated. It’s important not to over-mix the dough. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least 8 hours or overnight. While in the refrigerator, the dough will almost double in size.


©2006 By Leslie Mackie. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery & Café Cookbook by permission of Sasquatch Books.

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About the author

Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.