It seems these days that there's always a fancy-dancy pastry du jour. Some are classic and pure, some are re-reinterpreted gilded-lily cousins of something that was once humble and homey.
If you've got a sweet tooth, finding the patience to track down the best of the best can be difficult. With so many good options around, why not just eat ALL THE PASTRIES, right?
Nothing wrong with that, certainly.
But what if the pastry you seek is just... not available everywhere?
What if it has a deceptively simple ingredient list, but a preparation method that causes all but the most devoted pâtissières to quake in their clogs?
Yes, to make kouign amann, only the strong survive.
First, let's talk about how to even say this mouthful. Luckily, the first word is pretty easy - it's simply pronounced like "queen." Here in the states, it's perfectly acceptable to pronounce the second word just as it looks - "ah-MAHN," but if you speak French or have a background in pastry, you can leave off the n's and go with "ah-MAWH."
Next: what the heck is it?? Traditionally, kouign amann is a large, round cake made from layers of pastry dough, butter, and sugar. It's a Breton specialty but is found all over France, and within the last five years or so it's migrated across the Atlantic to our shores. The finished product is crisp and literally caramelized from the sugar and butter, but tender and flaky thanks to perfectly prepared pastry. As it's gained popularity, most stateside bakeries have taken to making smaller versions, roughly the size of a cupcake. Are you drooling yet? (If you're still confused, or still practicing your pronunciation, this clip from the Great British Baking Show will both help and charm you.)
So why is this so hard? Pastry dough, butter, sugar. Got it. Easy, right?
Wrong. What makes kouign amann so dang tricky, says Chicago pastry chef Emily Spurlin, is that you're already starting with laminated dough, a notoriously temperamental, not to mention time-consuming process.
Laminating dough means rolling it into layers with a LOT of butter. If the butter gets too warm, or the dough is overworked, the finished product can be off. Spurlin says that other factors include the number of times the dough is turned, how the dough is proofed, baking temperature, and the ambient temperature and humidity of the room itself. Adding layers (and layers) of a sugar and salt mixture to that head-spinning process means introducing yet another variable.
Spurlin has been making kouign amann since her days at Chicago's beloved Floriole, a bake shop that has long specialized in beautifully made pastries. She's about to help open the much-anticipated restaurant Bad Hunter as pastry chef.
Back in culinary school in Paris, Spurlin tried her first kouign amann at a chocolatier and pastry shop called Georges Larnicol. "They were called kouignettes - a mini version that was closer to the size we see in the states," she recalls. It was 2011, and kouign amann were still even more obscure in the U.S. than they are now.
While working atThe Publican
a few years later, Spurlin was first given the opportunity to learn more about pastry. She then took her talents to Floriole, where she started making kouign amann on a regular basis. She says she became comfortable making them after a few weeks, but that "'all in all, it took about 6 months" to feel like she had mastered them to a point where she knew how to identify - and correct when necessary - the signs of a successful bake.
When asked about her favorite flavors to add to kouign amann, Spurlin looks dreamily into the distance. "We would do these chocolate kouign amanns at Floriole. You add cocoa powder to the dough, and then top it with ganache." It sounds so good, I have to momentarily put down my pen to fully visualize it. She also loves a version with slowly cooked apples that they offer pretty regularly.
So what are the signs of a good kouign amann? Spurlin says, "they've got to be well-done" and have a crunchy outside due to the caramelized sugar, but "gooey inside," not dissimilar to the often-coveted squishy heart of a cinnamon bun. "And it's gotta be caramelized and dark on the bottom," she says, as the butter and sugar melt downward during baking. If you turn it upside down, "I always think of it as a little hat," she says.
Spurlin hopes to be able to offer kouign amann at Bad Hunter once the restaurant starts doing brunch service in the future.
In the meantime, here are the best places in Chicago to find this triumph of pastry magic.
This Lincoln Park treasure serves a dazzling variety of classic pastries, not to mention seasonal quiches, satisfying grain salads, sandwiches, and a fixed-menu Sunday Supper every week.
1220 W. Webster Ave // 773.883.1313
You'll often find the handful of tables at this small but inviting shop full of Logan Square locals. The menu changes daily, but you can usually find some nicely "capped" kouign amann in the pastry case. You'll also find interesting brunch and lunch items if you can score a seat and stick around.
3025 W. Diversey Ave // 773.697.8337
Known across Chicago for their savory royal pies, now found in a variety of coffee shops, bars, and neighborhood markets, this South Side-based bakery devotes itself just as deeply to great breads and pastries. You can find their kouign amann, along with hearth baked breads and those famous royal pies, at the new Pleasant House Pub in Pilsen.
2119 S. Halsted St // 773.523.7437
Amid their nice selection of what they call "adventurous pastries," check out Loba's savory twist on the kouign amann, a version with ham and cheese tucked into layers of flaky, sweet pastry.
3422 N. Lincoln Ave // 773.456.9266
Top image from Epicurious.
Home cook sensei. I write about recipes that are way more than the sum of their parts, usually with only 5 ingredients or less. I'm also the person you call if you're hungry and in Chicago.