Why hello there! After 4 crazy months of transitioning into life with a wee one, I’m making a return to blogland. Fun fact – as I was writing my last post about the built-in dining room cabinet, I went into labor. My little baby was born the next morning!
But you’re not here to read about baby stuff, you’re here for the DIY! (Right?) I admit I’ve been pretty unproductive (you know, aside from keeping a small human alive) but lately have gotten the DIY itch back. I’ve started with smaller projects but recently revisited something I dove into last year – homemade kouign amann. What the what? For the uninitiated, a kouign amann (pronounced approximately “queen uh-MAHN”) is a decadent pastry akin to a croissant, but butterier and sugarier and all around more delightful, in my completely biased opinion! Watching them made on the Great British Bake-Off piqued my curiosity and I finally had the chance to try one at b.patisserie in San Francisco a couple years later.
It was life-changing.
Not exaggerating too much, actually – that day was the day that my now husband moved out to CA to “see about a girl” and look how that turned out! Those pastries are harbingers of good things!
As it happens, many a kouign amann later, I’m convinced that b.patisserie makes the best kouign amann in the world. On our honeymoon in Paris, I insisted we stop at the bakery known for the best kouign amann and was left wanting. I think it depends on what you expect of a kouign amann. Apparently the pastry I know and love is departed a bit from the original Breton pastry, which is quite large (like a cake, to be served in slices) and far denser/wetter than what I’d tasted and loved. The pastries I’ve had pretty much everywhere except b.patisserie haven’t been as light and crispy and voluminous. Clearly there’s room for interpretation for this classic.
I made kouign amann a couple times following the BBC recipe used on the Great British Bake-Off and was disappointed. The result was more of the dense kind of kouign amann I’d found everywhere except b.patisserie.
Then, I moved to Cleveland. Except for a few SF trips where I made an immediate beeline for b.patisserie (priorities, people!) if I wanted kouign amann that tasted just like the ones from pastry Mecca, I’d have to make it myself.
(Note: if baking geekery bores you, skip to the recipe here! We’re going into the weeds! WHEEEEEE!)
Part 1: The Research
Naturally, I dove into the “literature” and created a spreadsheet comparing the ingredients in each legitimate-looking recipe I found. I ordered a couple of cookbooks but the majority of the recipes I found were online. I, uh, also ordered (and read cover-to-cover) Advanced Bread and Pastry, which apparently is used as a textbook in pastry school. (Remind me why I got an engineering degree?)
Quickly I realized there were a lot of variables in the recipes – and not just in the ingredients, in the process itself. A quick overview of the process:
- Make the dough
- Make the butter block (!!)
- Enclose the butter block in the dough
- Laminate – roll & fold the dough over itself several times to create many thin layers of butter & dough
- Cut and shape
- Proof – let the shaped pastries relax a bit before baking
Bakers have to strike a balance between many competing factors in creating a recipe. With kouign amann, we want something that’s both strong AND delicate, and that’s a tricky balance to strike. I describe some of these competing factors below by talking about some salient variations in the recipes I collected:
Recipes called for either bread flour, all-purpose flour, or pastry flour. These types of flour differ in their protein content, which is significant for many reasons but chief among them is gluten formation. In the simplest terms: Bread flour = higher protein = more gluten formed for that bready chew and structure we know and love. Pastry flour = lower protein = finer textured baked goods.
Kouign amann uses a laminated, enriched dough. Laminated means the dough is folded over a butter layer and then rolled and folded many times to yield many many thin layers of dough and butter. Enriched refers to any dough that’s got goodies in it: butter, sugar, eggs, and/or milk. Flour selection needs to account for these two things. On the one hand, we need a flour that’s strong enough to hold its laminated structure with all the additives, but on the other, not so strong that it resists all the rolling and folding.
But! That’s not the whole story. Even all all-purpose flours are not made alike. Their protein content can range anywhere from 8-12%, which is enormous variation! I’d want to choose a flour that’s well characterized and consistent, to avoid variation in the final product just due to the flour I chose.
Croissant dough (essentially what kouign amann dough is) contains a small percentage of sugar – the recipes I found included anywhere between 0 and 13% of the flour weight. Why include sugar? Besides that it’s delicious, of course. Sugar slows the development of the gluten by competing with the flour proteins in a race to bind with water in the dough. Because it binds with water, it makes the dough softer and denser.
Traditionally, croissant dough contains 12-13% sugar, but many of the kouign amann recipes I found contained no sugar in the dough at all. That’s not to say that the recipe contains no sugar – far from it! Sugar was called for in some or all of the following places: inside the butter block, rolled into the dough during lamination, and/or sprinkled on before shaping. Because croissants do not get the same sugary treatment after dough mixing, it’s possible to me that the 12-13% sugar by weight eventually finds its way into the final baked good in these recipes.
Sugar’s flavor and ability to inhibit gluten formation (hopefully helping make it easier to roll out) swayed me towards including it in my dough.
Butter Block Weight : Dough Weight Ratio
Now we’re talking – butter block, folks! A butter block is literally just a block of butter, shaped in such a way that it’s easily sandwiched inside the dough that we laminate, or roll out into thin layers. When the butter (~20% water) in a laminated dough hits the hot oven, it turns to steam and helps separate those thin layers of dough. A yeasted dough will go one step further and those individual dough layers will puff up by themselves too. All this yields a tender and flaky pastry!
Not all butter blocks are created equal, however. Measured against final dough weight, the percentage weight of roll-in butter called for in my collected recipes ranged from ~30% – ~50%. According to my textbook, croissant roll-in butter is usually around 25% of dough weight, while puff pastry is closer to 50%. This makes sense, given that puff pastry is unleavened and needs the extra boost. Having too little roll-in butter makes the dough incredibly sensitive to variations in the rolling process, meaning that if the layers get too thin in places, the butter effectively disappears, smushing all those toiled for layers together. Professional bakeries have machinery that can create more even layers. On the other hand, increasing the roll-in butter too much requires more turns laminating the dough – which, as we’ll get to later, is hard for a home baker. So, increasing the amount of roll-in butter than the 25% croissant (professional) standard seemed wise, but not adding so much that it required more folding.
Hydration refers to all the “wet” ingredients in a dough – in this case, milk, butter, and water. All my croissant recipes fell between 50-55% hydration, while the kouign amann recipes were all over the place, ranging from 50% all the way up to 73%! What gives?
Dough hydration increases the workability of the dough – but it also decreases its strength. We want all those layers to have some integrity so they can crisp up and separate when baked. The goal is to find a balance that lends enough structure to the fine layers you’re creating while preserving the dough’s extensibility, or ability to be rolled out. It seemed like a good idea to decrease the dough hydration as much as possible but give myself extensibility in other ways: specifically by adding butter to the dough itself. Yes, it seems silly to add butter to a dough that’s being folded around a giant block of butter, but it adds extensibility (and flavor!) without adding too much moisture.
The other trick is to use a preferment. A what? A preferment is a simple mixture of flour, water, and yeast (and sometimes salt) that’s mixed before the rest of the dough and allowed to ferment… hence the name preferment. There are many types of preferment, but the one I use in my recipe is called a poolish. The preferment (poolish) does a couple main things – one, it boosts the dough’s extensibility. Second, it adds a depth of flavor that’s not possible to achieve any other way. Thus, a preferment seemed like a good idea – and one that only one of the recipes I found called for.
Ah, proofing. Many a Great British Bake-Off contestant’s downfall. (I can hear Paul Hollywood disappointedly scolding some poor baker for underproofing his loaf.) Anywho! Proofing is the critical step between shaping the pastries and baking them. Why is it needed? Well, I won’t give the textbook answer but rather what I’ve experienced…
Right after shaping, the dough is relatively cold and tight. Yes, the dough has been resting in the fridge for awhile at this point, but because it’s been cold the yeast hasn’t really gotten to “do its thing” yet and thus the dough is dense. Baking the pastries without sufficient proofing leads to big old puddles of butter and tough, fried dough layers. Huh? What seems to happen is that when the pastries go into the oven and get blasted with heat, the butter melts, tries to create steam, runs into the stiff dough layers, and leaks out. GROSS. By proofing the pastries a bit longer, the yeast can lighten and soften up the dough, making it pliable and ready to respond to the steaming butter. Properly proofed pastries (tongue-twister!) should be sort of bloated and puffy and soft when poked.
So… the recipes I found were all over the place. One called for NO proofing time at all (??!) while others called for overnight fridge proofing, 30 minutes at room temperature, or hours at 75-80 degrees. One extra consideration for proofing time with kouign amann is the fact that they’re doused with sugar before shaping… which brings us to the last main variation between recipes – lamination inclusions!
Yikes. That’s a mouthful. This just refers to anything that’s rolled into the layers during lamination – in this case, sugar or a combination of sugar & salt. On the Great British Bake-Off, Paul insists that the correct way to make kouign amann is to roll some sugar into the last fold (or “turn”) before cutting and shaping.
And I… disagree! (GASP!) Unless you’re a pro, with a sheeter:
The sheeter is a perfect roller-outer of laminated dough – the layers are perfectly even, and there’s no more agitation than there needs to be. Why is that important? Think about the last time you rolled out cookie dough or pie dough. Did you roll it out in one stroke of the rolling pin? Or did it take rolling a bit, then shifting it on the work surface, then rolling a bit more in a couple different directions, maybe dusting with more flour, shifting it again, etc…? All that agitation creates more gluten. More gluten means more elasticity, which means your rolled out dough wants to spring back on itself after you worked so hard to roll it out.
So. What does this have to do with inclusions?? When Paul Hollywood talks about including sugar in the final fold, this is really only a good idea if you use a sheeter, so you can move directly from the final fold to final roll-out and cutting. With a sheeter, it doesn’t need any resting time. The dough is worked so minimally it doesn’t resist being rolled out, and you can do multiple rolling/folding operations in quick succession. Without a sheeter, the dough needs to rest for awhile after folding to let it relax. Trying to roll it out without resting it doesn’t go well – the dough springs back and it’s just impossible. Moreover, because the final roll-out requires significant dough resting time (I’ll talk more about this in the recipe directions) it means the dough sits around for awhile with all that sugar trapped in between layers… and sugar likes water. A whole lot.
So much so that if you fold in sugar, let the dough rest, and try to roll it out again… the layers become so slick they essentially try to delaminate. It’s a slip n’ slide. It’s hard enough to roll out the dough under perfect conditions, but when it’s coming apart and leaking sticky sugary juice everywhere? NO THANKS. Further, let’s say you fight the good fight, roll out the dough, and get all the way to baking the goodies – by that point, the sugar has all dissolved and your final baked goods are more like pull-apart bread than flaky pastries. With a sheeter, the sugar doesn’t have time to wreak havoc and the final baked pastry can include a crispy sugar layer.
This is a long-winded way of saying that as a home baker I’m against lamination inclusions!
Part 2: Trials
Armed with opinions and more recipes than I could ever reasonably try on my own (butter is expensive, folks) I stumbled upon the holy grail of information about at-home croissant baking: this fresh loaf forum post by txfarmer. All of what this magical internet person described jived with what I’d been reading and my own experience. I decided to take a leap of faith and try the croissant dough recipe and lamination process described to a T but diverge after the final turn to make kouign amann instead.
Without going into the recipe details here (because they’re below!) there were a few things I tested over several batches (I know, poor us!):
- Cutting – kouign amann needs to be cut into squares, but how big? I had to figure out how big to roll the final dough (dough that’s too thick has stodgy layers, and dough that’s too thin won’t puff up enough) and also how big to cut the squares (this may vary from person to person depending on the size of your pastry rings).
- Finishing – the kouign amann we know and love has a caramelized element to it, doused in sugar at some point (or multiple points!) before baking. But WHEN? There are many options – pre/post cutting, or pre/post proofing? I tried them ALL. Even combinations, and adding a sugar “filling.” I think adding a bit of salt to the sugar makes the flavor way more interesting (hello, salted caramel!) and so I played with salt:sugar ratios, too.
- Shaping – every recipe I’ve ever seen calls for simply shaping the pastries by bringing all 4 corners into the middle and plopping the pastry into a prepared muffin tin or pastry ring. BUT! upon closer inspection of b.patisserie’s pastries, there was no way they shaped them like that. I stalked their instagram pretty hardcore and found evidence to back up my claim! It makes a subtle, but in my view, critical difference in the final product. One of the things I adore about b.patisserie’s kouign amann is that it’s got a gooey almost jelly-like center. And not because the pastry is underdone – it’s some magical interaction of the sugary coating with the butter and water it’s drawn out of the dough:
The only way this magical gooey pocket happens is if you “protect” the interior of the pastry long enough during baking that it can steam up and avoid browning… Which is tough, because the only thing the pastry wants to do when it’s baked is puff up and spring open. The way they achieve this pocket (and I’m still figuring it out) is apparently by doing a series of small folds and then one larger fold to lock in that steamy goodness:
I haven’t gotten it down yet, and I think it has to do with how large I’m cutting my squares relative to my pastry ring size, but even with my work-in-progress technique I think it results in better pastries than the corners-only fold.
- Proofing – Proofing is critical but it’s hard to do in the dead of winter when your kitchen is max 63˚F! I don’t attempt these pastries in the summer months because a) who wants to turn on their oven (??!) and b) your working time with the butter is a fraction of what it is when it’s 20 degrees cooler. Butter starts to get melty at around 80˚F, so I began experimenting with using my oven as a proofer trying to keep the temperature as close to 80˚F without going over.
- Baking – this is another place where the process diverges from croissants, due to the added sugar and the folding. The variables I played with were preheat temperature, whether to change the temperature during the bake, and which baking sheets to use. Sheet pan type makes a BIG difference in the caramelization you see at the bottom of the pastry, plus how quickly the bottom bakes relative to the top. Baking on 2 sheets can have an insulating effect.
Part 3: The Recipe
Finally! This is still very much a work in progress, but I’m so thrilled with the results that it’s worth posting now, even if the process still changes over time.
- 15 pastry rings (or, as many pastry rings as you can finagle, plus 4oz ramekins, or a muffin tin in a pinch)
- rolling pin at least 14″ long
- 4 half sheet pans (2 dark, 2 light)
- stand mixer
- pizza cutter, or extremely sharp knife
- kitchen scale capable of accurately measuring <10g
- pastry brush (optional, but really useful)
For Poolish (Preferment)
- 160g King Arthur All-Purpose Flour
- 160g filtered water
- 1/8 tsp SAF instant yeast (yes, it seems silly to buy a POUND of yeast, but it lasts forever in the fridge/freezer)
- all the poolish
- 362g King Arthur All-Purpose Flour
- 10g sea salt
- 135g whole milk
- 40g unsalted Kerrygold butter
- 67g granulated sugar
- 3.55g SAF instant yeast (~1 generous tsp, if your scale doesn’t measure that precisely)
- 3.55g barley malt syrup (optional for flavor/color, also ~1 tsp)
For Butter Block
- 287g unsalted Kerrygold butter
- 200g granulated sugar
- 6g sea salt
(I’m including a sample timeline, since I think it’s helpful for planning purposes)
- Day 1, 10PM – Make your poolish : mix water, flour, and yeast in a container with room for the mix to grow to at least double its original size. I use a .75L Weck jar, but anything approximately that volume will work fine. If your kitchen is particularly cold (like, in the 60s) optionally use water 90-100F to help boost the yeast activity.
- Let it ferment 12-16 hours, till it’s nice and bubbly and has grown considerably in volume:
- Day 2, 10AM – mix up the dough. Add the poolish, flour, sugar, salt, yeast, malt syrup (if using), and milk to the bowl of your stand mixer and use the dough hook on the slowest speed to juuuuuust bring the ingredients together. Break up your 40g butter into little bits with your fingers and, with the mixer running, plop the bits in one by one. Set a timer for 3 minutes and let the mixer do its thing. Pull the mix off of the dough hook, set another timer for 2 minutes, and mix on the next highest speed. If the dough is trying to escape the bowl, push it back down and continue mixing. Below is what you’re looking for when you’re done – dough that’s still pretty rough. Trust me when I say the dough will be worked plenty more, and extra mixing right now would just toughen it up and make it harder to roll out later:
- Lay some plastic wrap down on your work surface and pat the dough out into a rectangle. Just go with whatever the dough wants to do – don’t work it too much in this stage. Just having it in a rough rectangle shape will help with the next step. Put your dough onto a sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and pop that sucker into the fridge to rest for at least 2 hours, but up to overnight.
- Day 2, 12PM – Make your butter block! This is fun. Grab a big length of parchment paper, fold it in half, and then create creases in the exact size of your final butter block: 8″x12″. Unfold your parchment and plop your (cold!) butter in the middle like so:Then, fold it back up and bash the heck out of it with a rolling pin! Really get after it! (But don’t rip your parchment paper…) Next, use your rolling pin to work the butter out to the extents of your folded package, making sure to produce a uniform thickness throughout:King Arthur Flour says that the ideal temperature for your butter block is 55F, but I think there’s a little wiggle room. You’d be surprised how quickly your butter warms up once it’s in a thin sheet, though, so work quickly! 49 is on the cool side, so I waited a little bit before continuing to the next step…
- Day 2, 12:30PM – Enclose the butter block in the dough. There are many ways to do this, but to optimize the final number of layers, I like doing a book fold, demonstrated below. First, take your dough out of the fridge, and, working quickly on a surface dusted with flour, roll it out to a 9″x18″ rectangle. And I do mean rectangle, with as much 90˚corner action as you can. Precision matters here! Now, carefully put your butter block on top of the dough so it has a .5″ border on 3 sides. Fold the free dough halfway over the butter, then enclose the butter fully by folding the other side over the first. This is called a book fold:
***Don’t attempt this if your dough and butter are noticeably different hardnesses. They should feel the same when you poke them. Because the butter block should be a specific temperature, this might mean you have to put your rolled out dough in the freezer or leave it at room temp for awhile & simultaneously keep your butter at the right temperature. I never said this was easy!!***
- Do your first turn! (A turn is the pastry world term for rolling out and folding the dough.) Immediately after enclosing your butter, grab your rolling pin again and make a series of gentle indentations along the length of the dough. This supposedly makes it easier to roll out and helps distribute the butter evenly! Working quickly but gently (and dusting with flour as needed), roll this out to a rectangle as close to 10″x18″ as possible. And mind those corners…
Now that the dough is rolled out, perform a book fold just like how we enclosed the butter block. Take one end, fold it 2/3 of the way over the dough, and then fold the 1/3 over the first bit. BUT! Before you do your fold, use a pizza wheel or very sharp knife to trim off the tiniest bit of dough from the first end you’ll fold inside. This will a) make it perfectly square and b) open up all the layers inside. In future folds, this helps propagate even layers and avoid big blobs of dough inside the lamination. As you fold, use a pastry brush (or, in a pinch, your hand) to remove excess flour so it’s not trapped in the layers.
At this point, you’ve done a turn! Hooray! We’ve got 6 layers of butter right now: 2 from the butter block enclosing step, and we just tripled that with the first turn. Stick that sucker on a baking sheet (dusted with a little flour to prevent sticking), cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest in the fridge for at least an hour. If we tried to roll it out again right now, two things would happen: the butter would likely warm up too much and start squishing around ruining the layers, and the flour is too tense and would resist our efforts. NO GOOD!
- Day 2, 2PM – Do a second turn. Repeat the step above where we rolled to 10″x18″, trimmed the edge, did the book fold, and stuck it back in the fridge to rest for at least an hour. We’re at 18 layers of butter now, for those keeping track!
- Day 2, 3PM – Do a third turn! Just like above. 54 layers now! Stick it back in the fridge for at least 90 minutes this time. The extra rest is needed because the next step is to roll it out much larger than we’ve needed to so far.
- Day 2, 4:30PM – Roll out and cut. We want to end up with 15 4.5″ squares. Because it’s so hard to get perfectly square corners, I like to roll mine out to 14″x23″. This is why it’s useful to have a long rolling pin! Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to these dimensions, then trim the edges so you’re left with a rectangle as close to 13.5″x22.5″ as possible. Make marks every 4.5″ along the length and width of the dough to lay out your grid, then make the cuts using some sort of straightedge. I have a yardstick dedicated to baking purposes… Take your dough squares and put them back on the baking sheet (separated by layers of parchment paper if you need to stack them) covered with plastic wrap into the fridge overnight.
- Day 3, 7AM – Mix up your finishing sugar and salt. I found that 3g salt:100g sugar is the perfect ratio for my tastebuds but feel free to experiment! This is where, in the future, I’ll fiddle with different sorts of finishes – like ground black sesame seeds, pulverized freeze-dried strawberries, peanut butter powder…
- Prepare your pastry rings. Liberally butter the inside of your pastry rings and dip them into the sugar mixture to create an even coating all around the inside.
- Shape those pastries! This is fun – and messy. Cover your 2 LIGHT sheet pans with a sheet of parchment paper, and put both of those light pans on top of a DARK sheet pan. Distribute your pastry rings evenly between them. Grab your sugar mixture, rolling pin, and stack of dough squares, and prepare to get sticky! First, spoon a generous amount of sugar onto your work surface, then onto a dough square. Next, gently roll the square until it’s approximately 5.5″ on each side. We want the squares slightly larger than they were before their rest but we also want to force some of that sugar mixture to stick to the surface.Now, we’re ready to shape. Grab one corner and, using your other hand to hold the dough in place, gently pull it away from the center. Fold it back in on itself so the corner is approximately at the center of the square. Now, rotate the dough ever so slightly and repeat the stretch & fold. We’re essentially pleating the edge, with gentle stretching. It’s a little hard to explain, so here are a few photos of that process:
Continue around the pastry until you’re at the final corner – we’re going to treat this like a giant flap and fold it over the whole rest of the dough. This is what will keep the inside nice and steamy and gooey and delicious while the rest of the pastry bakes up:
Whew! Put your shaped pastries into the prepared pastry rings to prepare for proofing:
- Day 3, 7:30AM – Proof those puppies! I find that 3 hours is sufficient. I use my oven for this, turned off of course! I put my sheet pans in the oven, then boil some water. I pour the water into a baking dish, which I put on the oven floor, covered by another pan to shield the sheet pans from the direct blast of steam:I usually refresh the boiling water once every hour or so, if I remember. According to my kitchen thermometer I stick in the oven, the temperature ranges from 66 to 76 degrees during the proofing process. I’d love it to be more around 78 for the whole time, but alas, I haven’t figured out how to do that yet! You’ll know your pastries are ready to bake when they look and feel a little puffy.
- Day 3, 10:30AM – BAKE!!!! Take your proofed pastries out of the oven (along with the extra sheet pan and water dish) and preheat your oven to 400˚F on the convection setting. (If your oven doesn’t do convection, you’ll need to play around with this a bit – start at 425˚F and see how that goes. You might also need to rearrange the trays once or twice during baking to even things out.) When the oven is up to temperature, stick your trays in and set a timer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, turn the oven down to 360˚F and bake for another 25 minutes. When they’re done, they’ll be very dark golden but NOT burnt:
Wait just a couple minutes and as soon as you can handle the pastry rings, get the pastries OUT. Trust me, once all that caramelization hardens, it’s like mortar. Get those pastry rings soaking in warm water as soon as humanly possible!
Now, wait until they won’t burn your mouth and ENJOY THOSE SUCKERS! They’ve got a painfully short shelf life, I’m afraid. All that sugar attracts a lot of moisture and renders those shatteringly crisp layers soft in a matter of hours. But you shouldn’t have trouble polishing them off now, should you? 😉
This timeline’s pretty brutal, I’ll give you that. I’m still trying to figure out how to have these done at a reasonable brunch hour without having to wake up ungodly early. I’ll need to experiment with the proofing a bit more… and see if the pastries can be frozen. Stay tuned. These are still very much a work in progress. But a DAMN TASTY work in progress! I also want to play around with fillings. b.patisserie has a black sesame kouign amann that’s dusted in black sesame sugar and has a gooey black sesame filling, and I’m just dying to recreate that. I have NO idea what that filling is, though, or WHEN to introduce it.
So, they’re not quiiiiite b.patisserie level, but I might be as close as I can get without a sheeter!