Last Thursday, I had a revelation. Around 2:15 in the afternoon, I was sitting outside on the charming patio of a swank bakery in New York City. I was midway through a pastry tour of Soho, an elective part of the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual conference. We’d already stopped at Jacques Torres to ogle the chocolate Easter Cows and sample truffles.
After that it was Francois Payard, where all of the chocolates for all of the Payard locations worldwide are made, including the sexiest chocolate Easter eggs you’ll ever see. I horsed down the flakiest, most delicious almond croissant of my life, and walked away with an assorted box of pastel French macarons. Starting to float on a saccharine wave, I was having a damn good day,
The next stop was Dominique Ansel Bakery, a newer spot in Soho run by Pastry Chef extraordinaire, Dominique Ansel. (It’s not just a clever name). When we were handed 2 full-sized pastries, I started to regret eating that entire almond croissant. But that regret was fleeting, because that almond croissant was out of control. So I forged onward.
A salted caramel eclair sat on one side of the plate. Big, crunchy flakes of salt in the caramel custard ensured that the pastry lived up to its reputation. Both flavors were represented equally. It was the perfect, harmonious balance of salty and sweet, and it was excellent.
And then there was the DKA, “Dominique’s Kouign Amann.” Until then, I had only heard of this legendary pastry but never actually had the opportunity to eat one. Similar to a croissant, a Kouign Amann (pronounced Ko-Ween Ah-Mahn) is made by folding and turning a brick of buttery dough over and over so that thin layers form and puff when it’s baked. The difficult and time consuming technique is called lamination, and when it’s done correctly, it’s downright magical. Kouign Amann are special because it uses heavily salted butter and a sprinkling of sugar when turning and folding the dough. This pastry was born in Brittany, France, where fleur de sel is harvested. I would guess it’s pretty easy to find delicious salted butter around those parts. When it’s baked, all of the butter and salt caramelize, leaving sticky pockets inside and crispy and chewy bits on the outside of the perfectly tender bread.
Cue the revelation!
This is the best thing I had eaten, sweet or savory, in a very very very very very long time. At it’s essence, Kouign Amann is a pretty simple thing, but coaxing the dough to be it’s most tender, finding the butter with just the right amount of salt, and baking it until the sugar is dark on the outside without burning up the whole thing up? That is NOT a simple thing. That is art + science + passion + talent.
Revelatory, no kidding, to be sitting outside on that patio in New York City, on a March afternoon, eating pure heaven, and wondering about how I got so lucky as to be able to call this “work.” The next time I’m scouring burned bits out of a mini muffin tin with a Brillo pad, or cleaning out a gooey chocolate fountain, I’m going straight back to my happy place at Dominique Ansel to remember my first taste of Kouign Amann.
Have you had the pleasure of eating this caramelized deliciousness? I would love to hear about it! When and where have you had Kouign Amann?