A recent article in Le Nouvel Observateur noted a steady price increase for some of the basic staples of life in France:
Is there anything more fabulous than something created through the wonder and miracle of caramelization?
Is there no means and ends that one won’t go to to experience that sigh with relief when one triumphantly pulls this perfectly caramelized melange of butter, sugar, and salt out of their oven? I think not.
Those butter-loving Bretons invented this unique gâteau for delivering the maximum dose of caramel: an all-encompassing dessert, which does double-duty at tea time. And I’ve been obsessed with figuring out how to make a perfect Kouign Amann, one of my favorite caramelized things in the world. And here are my results.
I searched long-and-wide for Kouign Amann recipes, which are rare…either they’re really sketchy, assuming that no one will actually dare to make it, or they didn’t work at all and I was left with a wet, buttery mess.
This week, I pulled disk-after-caramelized-disk out of my oven in a obsessive attempt to master this dessert that I love so much. This was also much to the delight of friends and neighbors, who never thought they could get enough Kouign Amann. After all my tinkering, by now they have.
I also learned why it was so hard to find a good Kouign Amann, it’s a bit of a challenge. So if you’d like to make a Kouign Amann, here’s a few tips I learned that will help you out before you get going…
- Use the best salted butter you can find. I use Breton salted butter, which is easy to find in France. But use whichever good salted butter you can find and flick few grains of coarse crunchy salt before folding the dough in layers and across the top before baking. It’s a pretty good approximation of the real thing.
(There is actually only one stick of butter in the recipe, 1 tablespoon per serving, so the resulting cake seems more buttery than it actually is.)
- This is a very sticky dough. You should have a metal bench or pastry scraper or a metal spatula handy to help with turning, as well as to keep the dough from sticking to the counter top.
- Work fast. Letting the dough sit on the counter and warm up is not a good idea. Roll quickly.
- Although I recommend waiting about 1 hour between rolling out the pastry layers, you can wait several hours (or overnight) for example, if you have a bit of extra time.
- It is strictly forbidden to think about diets while your making a Kouign Amann.
About 8 to 10 servings
- 1 tablespoon (12 g) active dry yeast, not instant
- ¾ cup (175 ml) tepid water
- 2 cups (260 g) all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar (which will be divided later)
- (Plus additional sugar for rolling out the pastry)
- 1 stick salted butter (110 g), cut into ½-inch (2 cm) cubes and chilled
- 2-3 tablespoons additional salted butter, melted
1. In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water with a pinch of sugar. Stir briefly, then let stand for 10 minutes until foamy.
2. Gradually stir the flour and salt. The dough should be soft, but not too sticky. Lightly dust your countertop with flour and transfer the dough onto it.
Knead the dough with your hands until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 3 minutes. If the dough is very sticky, knead in just enough flour, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough doesn’t stick to your hands.
3. Brush a medium bowl with melted butter, put the dough ball into the bowl. Cover, and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour.
4. Meanwhile, line a dinner plate with plastic wrap and set aside.
5. On a lightly floured countertop, roll the dough into a rectangle about 12″ x 18″ with the shorter sides to your left and right.
The dough may be sticky and difficult to handle. Use a metal pastry scraper to coax the dough into shape, and a minimal sprinkling of flour, as necessary. (It will all be beautiful later, trust me.)
Distribute the cubed butter in the center of the dough and sprinkle with ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar. Grab the left side of the dough, lift and fold it over the center, than do the same with the right side (like a letter). You should have what resembles a 3-level pastry.
6. Sprinkle the entire length of the dough with ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar and (without rolling) fold again into thirds, as before.
Place on the plastic wrap-covered dinner plate and chill for 1 hour.
(At this point, wipe excess flour from the countertop and dust the countertop with a rather liberal handful of sugar for rolling out the pastry again.)
7. Once chilled, remove dough from refrigerator.
Ease it away from the plastic onto the sugar-covered countertop.
(Use more sugar than shown. I was busy doing double-duty as the photographer and baker.)
Top the dough with ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar, press it in a bit with your hands, and roll into a rectangle for the last time.
Now wasn’t it easier this time?
Again, fold into thirds and let rest in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes.
8. Preheat oven to 425° F (220° C) and brush a 9-inch (23cm) pie plate, preferably non-stick, with melted butter.
9. Remove dough from refrigerator. Roll dough into a circle about the size of the baking pan. It will be sticky; dusting the top with a sprinkle of sugar will help.
Once rolled, lift the dough and coax it into the pan. (It will want to break. If so, fold it in half and quickly slide something flat under it, like the metal bench scrape AND a metal spatula and quickly slip it into the pan. If it does break, just piece it back together in the pan.)
10. Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar and drizzle with 1 tablespoon melted butter.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is deeply caramelized. Let stand a few minutes, then run a spatula around the edges to release the Kouign Amann and slide the cake from the pan onto a cooling rack.
Kouign Amann Links
Since this is an unusual recipe, readers may appreciate a few links and photos from people who’ve made it successfully:
Kouign Amann (Flickr stream)
Another Kouign Amann, made using American ingredients.
Served with Love makes this Kouign Amann.
French Letters shows-off a buttery example as well.
Fresh little cornichons ready for pickling, at the market:
When you think of ‘take-out’, France perhaps isn’t the first culture that comes to mind.
The concept to me seems so American; pick up the phone or walk to the corner, grab something to eat, bring it home and eat it in front of the television.
Nice and quick…and no dishes!
In spite of what you might think, France has plenty of take-out food shops, called traiteurs. These specialty shops are loaded with tempting things to eat: roasted and smoked meats, a few carefully-selected cheeses, vegetable salads, poached and cured fish, and of course, terrines and pâtes.
Although I don’t usually visit the traiteur, since I like to cook for myself and friends, i was in serious pursuit of Kig ha Farz, a Breton curiosity that’s made by making a gargantuan ‘dumpling’ of buckwheat flour, eggs, butter, and milk or cream, stirring them together and simmering the whole thing in a special linen sack (and yes, I bought one in Brittany to make this in the future.)
After the giant dumpling is cooked, the bag is rolled and rolled until the dumpling’s been broken up into tiny, couscous-like pieces. It’s heaped onto a plate and served with smoked bacon or lard, as they call it in France. Although I’ve seen recipes that call for vegetables served alongside, no one seemed to be requesting any…and there didn’t seem to be any on offer.
After hearing about Kig ha Farz for years, I was very curious and eager to try it. Acting on a tip from a friend’s Breton mother, I found one of the few remaining places in the world that still makes Kig ha Farz…and they make it only on Wednesdays.
Sure enough, when I arrived, there was a huge mob barely forming a line…and the frantic, but cheerful saleswomen were spooning Kig ha Farz into take-out barquettes as fast as they could (and most couldn’t resist picking and eating little morsels as they scooped. I can’t say I blame them…I’d do the same, if no one was watching. Take that to those of you who think I’m too uptight about food sanitation!)
Sporting a seriously-treacherous butcher’s knife, only then would the crowd part just long enough for them to hack off a slab of smoked bacon, wrap it in butcher-paper, and send you on your way. Once I was lucky to escape (alive), I went back to the house and wolfed down a plate of Kig ha Farz…then immediately had seconds, giving little to the thought that in just a few hours I’d have to don a swimsuit to return to the beach.
And the little French swimsuits leave no room for imagination, or expansion, caused by too much Kig ha Farz and lard.
Surely the most well-known take-away treats in Brittany are crêpes, which are impossible to avoid no matter where you go. I woke extra-early one morning to scour a local Vide-Grenier (similar to a flea market, but more like a large, free-form garage sale.) There I scored a stack sumptuous, unused vintage French linen sheets (for about the price of one French linen pillowcase in the US) from a rather nasty woman…an encounter which would make a visit to the oral surgeon seem pleasurable.
Thankfully there were dilligent crêpemakers there, swirling the eggy batter over the hot griddle, dotting them with salty butter and a dusting of crunchy sugar, passing off the warm, folded crêpes to hungry and beat-upon shoppers….aka: moi!.
Later in the day, it was back to the traiteur and to make a picnic for the beach.
It was a perfectly clear day, blue sky, delicious food and red wine…gentle waves lapping as I fell asleep in the warm sand…where I dreamed of many future nights, dozing away in my cozy bed between luxurious, hard-won linen sheets…with a big, round tummy…full of Kig ha Farz!
1, rue Général-Leclerc
Tel: 02 98 69 61 78
Of all the regions in France, one of the most peculiar is Brittany. The cuisine is hearty, earthy, and dynamic – like the terrain. The coastline is a virtual lunar landscape of jutting rock formations, with pristine beaches (with somewhat frosty water) tucked in between them. Consequently, upper Brittany is somewhat remote and not a popular tourist destination. Most of my days begin at an almost-deserted beach with a dip in a frigid, clear water, and finish at a lively crêperie, picking through a mound of moules frites, steaming-hot mussels simmered with white wine and local shallots served with a overly-generous pile of frites that I always think that I’d never be able to finish. (But, of course, I do.)
Ah, summer vacation in Brittany. There’s not much to do here except swim in the chilly water, and eat seafood, red onions (more about them in a later post), and spread the delicious salted butter on everything that I can.
Unlike the rest of France, the Bretons don’t eat much cheese…in fact, there are no local cheeses that I can think of that are produced in the region and I didn’t see one fromagerie in the entire ten days of our trip. But they make up for it by offering up lots of butter, which they’re justifiably famous for. When you compliment a local pastry shop or restaurant on their cuisine, they will invariably respond proudly, “C’est la beurre de Bretagne!”
There’s also not so much wine wine consumed either. The locals favor sparkling, lightly-alcoholic apple cider. A fizzy bottle is popped open before each meal and served in traditional bolées, similar to a squat coffee cup with a handle.
But back to the butter—it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Breton butter is notable since it’s almost always flecked with large, coarse grains of salt that crunch when you bite into them. Much of the salt used is harvested on ponds and marshes in the Guérande, where the famed fleur de sel is harvested as well. And unlike the rest of France, people in Brittany often butter rye bread, that’s served with oysters. (So next time you’re in Paris and that waiter gives you a quizzical look when you ask for butter, tell him that you’re from Brittany.)
Naturally much of this butter makes its way into buckwheat crêpes, or galettes de blé noir (when made with buckwheat flour, or blé noir, they’re normally called galettes rather than crêpes. You can buy crêpes at most of the local pastry shops, and if you’re lucky, they’re still warm.
One night I picked up a stack and for simple dessert, I heated a bottle of hard apple cider in a skillet, added a handful of unrefined cassonade sugar, a modest knob of Breton salted butter and some delicious prunes from Gascony. Once the cider was sweet and syrupy, I added some folded crêpes, a pour of Calvados, and voila!
Perhaps the most famous dessert of the region is the Far Breton. Far is the Breton word for ‘custard’, and the Far Breton is remarkably similar to a custard tart sans the crust. Like everything, there are good versions, and not-so-good versions (like pretzels on the streets of Manhattan). You’ll find Far Breton everywhere in Brittany; in supermarkets, outdoor markets, restaurants, and pastry shops. Like flan in Paris (which is a wedge of custard tart, and not the inverted caramel custard that many of us are used to,) a slab of Far Breton with prunes is often a mid-afternoons snack, or le goûter for hungry folks.
Although I find most of them rather dense and heavy, I knew that if I tried as many as possible like Goldilocks, I would certainly find the version that was “just right”. And sure enough, the best was from a pastry shop in Lesneven called Labbé, a few steps off the main square.
Another extraordinary treat is the Kouign amann, which is pronounced (and spelled) a few different ways, depending on your accent.
A friend who visited Brittany once wrote me and said, “A stick of butter would seem light in comparison!..” when describing his first encounter withKouign amann. And indeed, the word amann is the Breton word for butter.
I had to try one from several bakeries, since it’s one of my favorite desserts: layers of flaky pastry baked with plenty of salted butter and sugar, until it’s all dark, crisp, and caramelized? Bring it on. Sometimes they’ll sell it by the slab at outdoor markets, and they slice off a hunk for you and sell it by the kilo. But the best thing I ate all week was…
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Here I was surrounded by fabulous buttery creations, but then I discovered strawberries from Plougastel. But honestly, these were the best strawberries I’ve ever had. Although usually I judge fruit based on its aroma before I buy (and these had little smell), these looked so ruby-red and glistening, that I just had to try them. Each one was sweet-sweet-sweet! Each was juicy with flavor, like a soft piece of sweet strawberry candy and deep red all the way through. I’ve never had strawberries like that before, although I’ve seen them in the markets in Paris, they never looked so appealing as they did at that village fruit market in Brittany.
Related Links and Posts
Le Bateau en chocolat (Georges Larnicol launches a chocolate boat, video)
I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, and figured I’d ask “Is it just me?…What would you do?”
Let’s say you’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner. Yum.
You arrive and they’re preparing the food. There’s piles of fresh produce and meat on the counter, ready to be whipped up into something magical and tasty. Vibrant tomatoes, leafy greens, juicy meat ready to be roasted….hmmmm.
Can you practically taste it?
As you sip your glass of red wine, you watch and chat with your host as they prepare dinner.
They wash the raw chicken or pork under running water in the kitchen sink. Afterwards a quick wipe their hands (uh oh, you begin to think…no soap!…not to mention they’re going to use that kitchen towel again and again and again…).
Then they fill the sink with water to wash the lettuce…without cleaning it out!
Or what if they’re making a salad, and take the knife they’ve just used to cut up the uncooked pork sausage?
Without wiping the knife, they begin slicing the cucumbers and tomatoes for the salad, tossing it all together, then triumphantly setting it down on the table.
I mean, Hello?
Since you’re a extremely polite and gracious guest, like I am, (and believe me, no one’s allergic to lettuce or cucumbers…so forget that one.)
I mean, it’s not like you can just eat around the salmonella, can you?
…what do you do?
The French predilection of blowing things out of proportion is nowhere more evident than in the highly detailed, extraordinary Michelin maps, which cover every nook, cranny, crevice and petit village in France. And like many things French, once you figure out how to work within the ‘system’, in this case an unwieldingly large map that’s impossible to unfurl in the car, it works better than anything else it the world.
(Unless you’re trying to renew your French visa. Then you realize there’s absolutely no system to work within…)
But even the most astute scholar of la langue française would have trouble giving concise verbal directions to his French driver navigating the villages of Brittany. Most have the disturbing habit of names that have been roughly translated from an ancient, almost-forgotten language.
Try reeling off these names while giving directions…
….Ploudaniel, Plougastel, Plougerneau, Plouneour-Trez, Plougasnou, and Ploubezre, Ploubazenec, Ploumillau…
Still, for me, driving gives me the opportunity to visit my favorite food hot-spots in France. And in case you think all the food in France is ‘gourmet’, it ain’t.
(So please don’t ask me anymore about that silliness Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, since it will soon become obvious to you that ‘French Women Don’t Do Any Driving On les Autoroutes‘.)
So before I write beautiful, poetic essays accompanied by lavish photos of rich, buttery, golden desserts from Brittany, I thought I’d share my absolute favorite food destinations in France with you: Le Auto Boutique.
And the best of the worst is found at the Auto Boutique, inviting, ultra-modern structures that line the autoroutes of France, where you can refuel your car, and refuel yourself.
Each Auto Boutique is like a mini-village. Some sell fleur de sel and foie gras (imagine finding those at your local 7-11!), other times I’ve seen local saucisson and regional wines amongst the offerings.
Although the majority of drivers stop for a cigarette and café, there’s plenty of other options beside vending machine café express and soupe de legumes.
But I first fell in love with les Auto Boutiques when I spotted this:
The ouef dur mayonnaise.
It’s one of the classic bistro entrées. Here it’s been reduced to its most simple, most minimalist elements: just an egg, just a packet of mayonnaise.
It reminds me of something that you might be served at El Bulli, but here you can have it for the astonishingly low-price of only 1.80€.
Remember you saw it here first.
And of course, you’ll be able to choose something from the staggering display of Les sandwiches.
Once again, don’t let the fancy packaging fool you. Oh-la-la!…Le jambon fromage? That’s ham & cheese, pal.
But every once in a while, you’ll find something exotic, something wild and Provençal, like a Tapenade sandwich…
Ok, that plastic-wrapped triangle is about as authentic and ‘wild and Provençal’ as a Peter Mayle novel-ette about some dreary English bloke who leads a dreary life of corporate drudgery in London but receives a mysterious inheritance of a house in Provence so he moves to Provence, learns to make wine, befriends his charming neighbor and has hilarious adventures borrowing his tractor, and watches sunsets daily with a glass of rosé and a game of boules…and of course, further hi-jinks ensue when he finds a local, rosy-cheeked contractor to…blah blah blah….
Before you toss your nose up in the air, for the more sophisticated amongst yourselves, you’ll find les tartes, including the people-pleasin’ Quiche Lorraine.
So it’s 5am, and I’m fueled up on café express (the French say, “It’s not the coffee you take after dinner that keeps you awake, it’s the one you have at 5 o’clock”…and I have to admit, they’re right.)
Onward through Brittany….
Back to Paris, after 10 days in the summer sun (and occasional drizzle) of Brittany.
I’ve had enough butter to last me quite a while, in buttery buckwheat crêpes, buttery caramelized Kouign Amann, butter-rich Far Breton, and Kik ha farz…drizzled with butter.
In the next few days, between exercising, I’ll be adding photos and stories about all the treats…