Yes! Trader Joe’s! How awesome are you? I’ve never even heard of Kouign Amann before, and now I’m in love with them. As you may havenoticed, good reader, I’m a sucker for amazing sounding food names. Avacado’s Number was good, but Trader Joe’s 4 Kouigns Amann is an absolute knock out. What sounds like an ancient Mesopotamian ur-city is actually a delightful layered pastry from Brittany, which give us just so much to talk about today.
First up, what is it exactly and is it any good? What it is, is a dense, hefty square of flaky, moist and yummy pastry with no filling, but a sweet, delicious carmelized bottom. Yes, flying in the face of well-established tradition the world over, the Bretons stuck the sweet bit on the bottom. Simply outstanding work, in my opinion.
Is it any good? My god, yes. It’s good because it walks that wildly dangerous line between flaky crispiness and sweet sugariness and comes out just flaky enough and just sweet enough on the other side. It’s also terribly good because you bake them yourself, and very few things in life beat a warm, fresh-baked pastry straight out of the oven.
To my taste it most resembles a turnover without any filling. This analogy sells the kouign amann short however, because it’s not really like any other pastry I’ve ever had. Essentially, it’s bread dough with layers of butter and sugar folded in. The first difference, is that it doesn’t have as many folds as more common puff pastries, like croissants. As the kougin amann bakes, the folded in butter puffs up the pastry giving it lift and flakiness, but not airiness. At the same time, possibly due to advanced witchery, the sugar caramelizes within the pastry and across the bottom – forming a chewy caramel base.
I’ve tried a few of Trader Joe’s cook-at-home pastries, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. That said, this is my favorite to date with it’s elegant balance that is neither too sweet, or too dry. If there’s a downside, it’s the long prep time. Like other pastries, the kouigns amann need to be left to proof over night, and require a lengthy stay in the oven – at least 25 minutes for them to caramelize properly. This takes it out of the running for an every morning kind of breakfast food – but a wonderful addition to lazy weekends.
So who do we have to thank for this pastry? The French of course! Well, not really the French – but the Bretons! Every good country has a bit that doesn’t really like to be associated with the rest of the country. Canada has Quebec, America has Hawaii, Japan has Okinawa, Great Britain has all the bits that aren’t England, and France has Brittany. With a history that diverged from the rest of mainland France in pre-Roman times, and the hilarious nickname “Lesser Britain”, Brittany never really got on board with the whole “France” thing, and retains it’s own distinct culture and language. In fact, Breton (the language) is far more closely related to Welsh than it is to French – hence a French pastry with a very un-French sounding name of kouigns amann, which translates to “butter cake” in Breton.
In particular, kouign amann hails from a part of Brittany called Douarnenez, where it was first invented in the 1860’s by some unsung genius. Dournenez is also famous for being the home to the mythical Breton city of Ys, long since vanished beneath the waves but ready to rise again once, as the Bretons say, “Paris is swallowed”.
The moral? Kouigns amann are delicous, and might somehow lead to the destruction of Paris. Until that happens, I’d recommend eating up.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you have the time to cook them.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes – as soon as I can rationalize them back into my diet.
Final Synopsis: Tasty, dense and flaky pastries with caramelized bottoms.