The tipping point happened in a parking lot just off the Dallas North Tollway, while I was sitting in my car. The sun had only put in a few hours' work that day and was casting a golden yolk haze inside my Honda. I was holding a kouign-amann (pronounced "queen ah-mahn") that I had delicately pulled apart into two halves.
Layers of dough as thin as feathers were translucent. When I held one piece up to my ear I heard the mermaids singing in an ocean. As the first bite dissolved in my mouth, I sat with eyes closed just for a second. The flavor was much more powerful than a croissant; the sweetness was balanced with just a touch of salt. The muffin-like pillow had been baked long enough to caramelize the sugar, but pulled out seconds before the peaks would have become a dark brown.
From that moment on, I could no longer just eat a pastry. My approach to flour, salt and butter has since been akin to Mulder and Scully approaching an ominous glow. It’s a full-on investigation.
And baking is so super hard, which makes my “investigations” elitist and annoying. But, yummy. Much yummier than any episode of The X-Files.
When June 20 rolled around and I saw it national kouign-amann day, I canceled vacation plans to Big Bend to make sure I was near some solid bakeries. (Total lie. Never had plans to go to Big Bend.)
Actually, instead of the vacation we’re not taking this year, I thought I’d take the kids around the city buying up all the good kouign-amanns. We only made three stops before I threw in the towel, because of the traffic and kids and cars and so many people everywhere. We gave it a solid effort.
For a little history and perspective, the kouign-amann comes from Brittany, France. Last year I spoke with Bisous Bisous owner and pastry chef Andrea Meyer. She explained the region is known for its butter, or rather “home of these awesome, happy cows.”
Meyer was traveling in the region in 2012 and bought a kouign-amann from a street cart. Four years later, she had completed her studies at Le Cordon Bleu and opened Bisous Bisous, but could not stop thinking about that one pastry. So in 2016, she flew back to France to find the same cart and vendor. He was gone.
But, she was able to track down another baker who spent one day teaching her how to bake them, in French. She figured it out, then came back to Dallas to share the good word.
Now, the “happy cows” reference is really important here because good butter could very well change a marginal pastry to a life-changing, cow-tipping event.
Kouign-amann is a croissant dough that is layered in sugar and butter, then baked in a muffin pan. Some bakers make a four-corners version; others swirl the dough in a circle like a cinnamon roll. Meyer says the latter is how they’re done in Brittany.
Several local bakers, including Meyer, Hans Muller of Swiss Pastry Shop in Fort Worth and Marisco Trejo of La Casita have all explained they are difficult to bake: Timing is everything, the oven has to be watched like a hawk, it can’t be opened and the tray they’re on has to be flipped over immediately after coming out of the oven, which is tricky since the sugar is so hot.
Mueller bakes kouign-amanns only during the cooler months of the year because if the equipment in his kitchen is too warm, he can’t keep the butter at the right temperature. (It’s off-season right now, check his Facebook page in September.)
It’s highly advised to call or order ahead because many bakeshops only summon up a dozen or so a day.
Following are some of the kouign-amanns we’ve found locally that we can vouch for.
The Village Baking Co.'s kouign-amann just really can't be beat. They've achieved the perfect balance between a tender flaky inside and a top that is almost like a palmier. It sings.
As mentioned, Meyer at Bisous Bisous sticks to the original form from Brittany. As you unwind the outer ring, a delicate core is revealed. Each layer is a little different. And the timing in the oven is absolutely perfect.
Hans Mueller of the Swiss Pastry Shop grew up spending summers in Switzerland with his aunt. She would bring home boxes of pastries, including these gems. He only recently started baking them, but adds filling to them, such as fig and walnuts. As mentioned, they're seasonal (too hard to make in the summer) so be sure to check their social media pages before heading over.
La Casita's kouign-amanns are a bit tighter than others. In the back of the photo above, you can see the caramelized sugar that covers the bottom half.
Slowly, but steadily make a map and check each one out. They all offer something a little different, but take your time to enjoy the lovely, delicious art of baking a kouign-amann. They're all a gift.
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