This one really stung.
I have wanted to make the Kouign-Amann recipe in my Bread Illustrated cookbook for eons. I remember seeing the bakers on the Great British Bake-Off scratching their heads when faced with a challenge that required them to bake this old-school pastry-type thing from Brittany. I was thinking, “I need make this” – and then I was delighted to discover that Bread Illustrated include a recipe for this obscure bread on its very last page.
I’ve read that Kouign-Amann (pronounced kind of like “queen ah-mahn”… I think…) are incredibly delicious. I believe it, too – it’s a laminated dough with lots of butter and a thin shell of caramelized goodness. I just, unfortunately, haven’t had the opportunity to experience the deliciousness for myself.
Because my own attempt at baking Kouign-Amann’s was a total, utter disaster and such a tragic waste of expensive butter.
Let me rewind.
I decided to try to bake the Kouign-Amann’s for a book club meeting. Things started out well: the first step involved mixing some dry (flour, yeast, salt) ingredients with some wet (milk, sugar, melted butter) ingredients in the stand mixer, letting it rest, and whacking together a perfect parchment square of butter.
I love the butter whacking and Bread Illustrated provides a fairly easy way of making the parchment square. It involves carefully measuring and folding a big piece of parchment and then smacking some butter with a rolling pin until it fills the origami-like square.
It is VERY satisfying when it’s finished.
Then, you laminate everything by rolling and folding and rolling and folding the butter into the dough. This is the same process that I used when I made croissants earlier this year, and let me tell you – it is WAY easier to do in the winter in a cold house! I didn’t have any issues of tearing down or melting butter.
Things were going very well.
(Hahahahaha. Little did I know.)
The sugar step came next (well, one of the sugar steps – there is quite a bit of sugar going on here. It’s a dessert, people). You sprinkle sugar onto the dough and fold it a few times, creating delicious layers of sugar and butter and dough. It’s a beautiful thing.
After allowing the dough to chill in the fridge, literally and figuratively, it’s time to shape these pretty little clover-like pastries. You have to roll and trim the dough into two perfect rectangles. I used a pizza wheel to cut the dough into strips, then squares. My corners were sharp and my dough looked pro – things looked so promising!
To give the Kouign-Amanns their signature caramelly bottom, you brush each cup in a muffin tin with melted butter and sprinkle in a little sugar (because of course there’s more sugar), tapping out the excess. Then, you dip each square of pastry into – what else – a shallow bowl of sugar, then fold the squares into the muffin tin. The pastry looks a bit like those cootie-catcher fortune teller thingies we all made when we were younger.
The recipe indicates that at this point, “unrisen Kouign-Amann can be refrigerated for up to 18 hours; let rise at room temperature for 3 to 3.5 hours before baking”. It was getting late, so I popped everything in the fridge – and then I got a text saying that I had to work as an extra on a made-for-TV film set the following day. Which meant that I woke up at 3 AM to take the Kouign-Amanns out of the fridge so that I could bake them before I left the house. Yes, it was totally insane – but I just knew it would be worth it.
Before you bake them, the Kouign-Amanns get juuuuust a little more sugar and butter: brush the tops with melted butter, dust the tops with a bit of sugar, and bake the whole thing for 25 to 30 minutes.
HERE IS MY TIP: PUT THE MUFFIN TIN ON A COOKIE SHEET.
This is what happened to me: I put the Kouign-Amanns in the oven and set the timer for 12 minutes, which was when I planned on rotating the pan in the oven to ensure an even bake. Then I got out of the way so that Cedric could make his breakfast and coffee. Remember – it is presently 6 AM.
I’m in another room tapping away at my computer when, from the kitchen, Cedric tells me that whatever I’m baking appears to be smoking. I tell him to turn on the oven fan, but he tells me I might want to come take a look.
The pastries have only been in the oven about 5 minutes, but I head over and it smells a little burny. I open the oven and smoke BILLOWS out – I can’t see and it immediately stings my nose and throat. While Cedric is dismantling the smoke detector, I pull the muffin tin out and close the oven door, then proceed to open all the windows to let the smoke escape.
I’m in a bit of a predicament, here. My not-even-half-baked pastries sit pale on the stove, and my oven is still smoking like mad. After a bit of investigation, it appears that something overflowed and spilled onto the bottom of the oven. I’m able to pull out the liner at the bottom of the oven and let some air circulate until the smoke is gone.
I decided to try throwing the Kouign-Amanns back in the oven, despite the fact that they’ve been sitting out for a few minutes and the oven has cooled with all the opening and closing. I cross my fingers and hope for the best as I keep a very close eye on things.
Unfortunately, luck was not on my side. Although they emerged from the oven looking pretty good – they even had a gooey caramel bottom when I flipped them out, which hardened just as it was supposed to – the taste was seriously compromised.
They tasted of smoke – nasty, nasty smoke. You could almost get a sense of what they were supposed to taste like, but the taste of smoke was so overpowering that they were inedible.
I left them for a day, but nothing had changed when I bit into one the next day (the day of my book club meeting). They tasted so badly of smoke that I had to throw the whole batch out. HEARTBREAKING!
I made an emergency batch of chocolate chip cookies for book club. They were good – but they weren’t Kouign-Amanns.
The worst part is that I know I probably won’t try this recipe again for a long, long time – if I ever do at all. They were so labour intensive, and all for naught. I’m thinking I’m better off flying to France and visiting every pastry shop in Brittany to find one baked by a pro.
I think it’s safe to say that if I had been on the Kouign-Amann episode of the Great British Bake-Off, I would have been sent home.
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