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The Pastry I Judge All French Bakeries By

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When I moved to Paris ten years ago and followed my belly around the city to assess the breadth of the bread and pastry offering (sweets first, savory second), the crunch-friendly options were legion but not created equal. As far as breakfast pastries went, I was team-croissant until I had my first, awe-inspiring experience with a still little-known Breton pastry called the Kouign Amann.

The two are similar insofar as they both are prepared from laminated dough and a liberal layering of butter, but the KA is denser and, most importantly, crispier throughout thanks to the sugar added between the many layers of pastry dough. The caramelized finish lends a light crunch to its coating, giving way to a moist (but not too soft) center.

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Kouign Amann
Kouign Amann

Though its normal, unassuming shape resembles a thick crown, the first one I tried was actually revisited by Philippe Conticini, formerly of La Pâtisserie des Rêves, and in the form of a long rod. Regardless, the near-religious experience began from that very first bite—my eyes rolled back in my head as the caramel flavor coated my teeth. Adding to the novelty was its relative mystery—not even my French husband had heard of it and yet it hews to all the fundamental pillars of French pastry.

When I travel, I tend to gauge the quality of bakeries that offer French pastries on whether they attempt the Kouign Amann and, of course, whether it generates the same reaction in me. So far, Dominique Ansel’s brown sugar version in New York and London win highest marks for instantly transporting me back to France.

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Kouign Amann

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Makes 12
  • 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
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