A few years ago, my girlfriends and I (les trois Canadiennes) took a little road trip around northern France en route to our Université de Reims graduation ceremony. To this day, it remains one of my most treasured life experiences. We laughed, we ate, we drank, and we received some of the most insane driving instructions in remote areas (c’est tres simple: à gauche, à gauche, tout droit, tout droit, encore à gauche au silo et c’est impossible de vous perdre!). Throughout our journey in Brittany we had some of the best pastries I have ever tasted. Given it is the land of butter and salt, you can imagine just how good both the flakey pastries and the caramel were. My friend Elspeth was fixated on finding the best kouign-amann. At first I thought she simply had something caught in her throat, koui – what? But oh no, she had in mind the best, lightest, sugariest pastry a person could dream of; simple with few ingredients, but utterly magical.
It never takes me long after returning from France to start dreaming of the next trip. It’s shocking how much of my time I live in France, both in my mind and in reality. So recently I began thinking about a project that would make me feel like I am in France even when I am not. Large-scale cooking projects are great for cold winter weekends (which haven’t seemed to end this year). It’s challenging and fun. But one has to get psyched up for the experience. If you plan on rushing, the whole affair will end up in tears, frustration and copious amounts of flour all over your kitchen. I was seriously ready for a new adventure just in time for Easter: kouign-amann!
Ever since deciding to attack this project, I have been fraught with trying to find the very best of ingredients. If I were going to all this effort, I would not settle for grocery store butter and flour. No sirree, I searched high and low for French butter and flour. One would think I was trying to buy some sort of illicit drug (oh no, we can’t get European butter in Canada, we have restrictions on that sort of thing…sheesh). I asked every local French baker I could find and was given some helpful suggestions, but not one authentic ingredient was to be had. Alas, I had to settle for small dairy butter and the suggestion of swapping out a little all-purpose flour with cake and pastry flour to lighten it up.
In the end, I truly enjoyed the process, finding the whole event very satisfying (there is something so delightful about seeing dough rise, then punching it back down). It’s really not a terribly difficult procedure if you are used to making dough, one just needs to plan it out far in advance to allow for all the rising, chilling and laminating time (lamination is the process of folding in a butter block, rolling, turning the dough a number of times in order to get several layers of butter between layers of dough. It’s what makes croissants and puff pastry so light and delectable). I have never been a huge dessert fan, but pastry for breakfast with your morning coffee I can certainly appreciate. My kouign-amann turned out lovely, but I am still rather happy to wait until I am back in France to indulge in authentic pastries. This is only possible because I am lucky enough to have built a life where being in France is a yearly happening.
For those with the stamina to endeavour a project such as this, you’ll find the recipe here. I wish you patience, determination and suggest a good glass of wine to keep you company throughout the process. Je vous souhaite de Joyeuses fêtes de Paques et bon kouign-amann à tous!