Salted Butter and Sugar. Oh, and Some Flour too.
Sweet or savory? For me, it’s no question. I am a sweets person, with an incredible capacity for sugar, rarely reaching my max and hardly ever stopping before there is nothing but a sugar granule left on my plate. My dentist can’t believe that I still have all of my teeth left.
When I first discovered the Kouign Amann, the strange looking word that simply means “butter cake” in Breton, I knew that I had met my match. It was at Pierre Hermé’s boutique in Paris’ Saint Germain des Prés years back, when this small round pastry called out at me, distracting me from the rows of colorful macarons at which I was gazing. Sitting besides pains au chocolat and brioches, it resembled a typical French pastry, but one that had fallen into a deep vat of sugar and butter, and resurfaced as a perfect specimen of caramelization. On a bench just a few steps away at Place Saint-Sulpice, I carefully pulled away the crisp, buttery layers, my eyes growing larger and larger with every bite. The firm caramelized outer layers, the softer sweet pastry dough inside, nary an unsweetened spot to be found. The wonders of just butter, sugar, flour and salt! I knew that one day I would have to go to the source. Imagine, bakeries and pastry shops with windows filled with them, small individual cakes or larger ones for a dozen people to share; it was a dream.
I found myself staring into shop windows like these in Brittany (on France’s northwest coast) this past weekend. But I made sure to spend most of my time on the other side of those windows, namely at the counter with googley eyes and my finger ready to point out the most golden Kouign Amann of the bunch. On this particular trip, I was limited to those of Cancale and St. Malo (not a bad thing). Next time I hope to get to Douarnenez, the city in Finistère, where the cake (purportedly) has its origins. My favorite story, among the many tales, says that the Kouign Amann was invented around 1860, during a time when rations of flour were limited in France. Not so for butter, which was quite abundant at the time. Hence its wild proportions in the recipe.
There is no shortage of Kouign Amann recipes on the internet, et surtout beaucoup plus en français qu?en anglais. David Lebovitz, with his love for all things from Brittany and especially this butter cake, has several mouthwatering posts on the subject, discussing yet another alleged place of origin, a quick recipe, plus a more thorough version with photos. The thought of being able to bake up one of my own is tantalizing. I’d use only the very best quality ingredients, some of the salted butter I brought back, pay careful attention to each important step along the way, and not complain that it could take an entire day. But I have to admit to being rather intimidated. There is an expression in French that applies directly to the Kouign Amann, “le fait qui veut, le réussit qui peut.” Basically, if you want to, you can make one. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you will make one successfully. This and the fact that my very close friend – a Breton himself, passionate food lover, gourmand by all means of the word, and a truly talented chef who sees no dish too ambitious to make at his home in Paris – never dared try his hand at it.
I’ll just have to start planning my next trip instead. And start deciding upon which individual Kouign Amann to savor first. Nature (plain, but by no means ordinary), cooked with apples in the dough, or topped with a dollop of Nutella. We should all have such difficult decisions in life.
Note: I had never seen Kouign Amann in any form other than the original. But in St. Malo, I found a bakery devoted to just Kouign Amann and Far Breton (a dense custard-like cake dotted with prunes), with three options for the former: original, apple and Nutella. The apples baked in the dough were not overpowering, and added a nice flavor and another layer of texture. They did make the dough a bit softer, losing some of its iconic sugary crunch, so that disqualifies it as my favorite. I am guessing that traditionalists would turn their noses at any adornments to such a simple delicacy, certainly the idea of adding a spoonful of creamy Nutella. But it was on the menu, not my idea… and it was truly divine. Especially when the cakes are a bit warm, just out of the oven, and the Nutella starts to melt ever so slightly. My advice, have plenty of napkins on hand.Les Délices du Gouverneur
12 rue Saint Vincent
35400 Saint Malo France
Aux Délices de la Houle 10 Quai Gambetta 35260 Cancale France