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The kouign amann has been described in The New York Times as “the fattiest pastry in all of Europe”, which, given Europe’s history of creating wonderfully indulgent pastries, is some compliment. It’s a speciality of Brittany, originally made in Douarnenez, Finistère, on the north-western tip of France, that’s become a bit of an international phenomenon.
Literally meaning butter cake in Breton, kouign amann (pronounced “kween ah-Mon”) is a caramelised spiral of puffy pastry made up of 40 per cent flour, 30 per cent butter and 30 per cent sugar. It’s thought to have been invented by a chef using up leftover dough in the mid-19th century.
Breton chefs, determined to protect the traditional recipe, have trademarked it, but that hasn’t stopped it from popping up in various guises around the world. “It’s not the most fancy looking dessert but something draws you in and makes you want to taste it,” says Charles Kergaravat, president of Breizh Amerika, an association promoting Brittany in the US. “It’s also very delicious,” he adds.
“It’s a hugely-calorific dessert but that seems to be a selling point abroad,” says Olivier Mailly, chef of Pont-Croix-based Kouignardise, a bakery in Brittany with its own small version of the kouign amann.
“It’s the texture people crave,” says Thrina Low, head of artisan French Bakery Brera in Singapore, “it’s heavier than croissant, it melts in your mouth but it’s also crunchy and chewy.” Her kouign amann is the second most-bought pastry in her shop after the cruffin, a croissant-muffin hybrid.
In Brittany it is usually sold large, to be warmed in the oven and cut in slices. But foreign audiences seem to prefer individual-sized versions, sometimes baked with additional ingredients such as chocolate, apple or pistachios. “It’s a good thing more conservative chefs preserve the original recipe, but there’s definitely an appetite for modern versions,” says Mailly.
In London, Yeast Bakery offers a version with a caramelised pineapple slice on top. In New Hampshire, Big Dave’s Bagels & Deli sells “kweenies”, a take on kouign amann, alongside turkey sandwiches and burrito wraps. In Japan, they are sold in convenience stores. Specialised bakers try their luck in TV bakeoffs. An anime episode even features a chef delivering kouign amann for judges to rate.
With the help of social media and smart entrepreneurs, kouign amann has become a must-try globally. “It’s really blown up in recent years, everybody wants a piece,” says Kergaravat.