When I look back on my childhood, I realize that we did not have a lot. We certainly had enough, but we did not grow up as children of excess. We never needed anything, but sometimes we wanted things.
My mother is an amazing seamstress. She made my wedding dress, and it is stunning. As an adult, I appreciate her skill and artistry with stitchery. As a kid, I just wanted a label in my clothes.
When I was in the fifth grade, I had a pair of bright blue pants. They had large white daisies on them. All over them. My mother made them for me with love and of necessity. I needed pants, so she made me some. What I wanted was jeans. Oh, how I longed for a pair of Levi’s. I begged and pleaded and explained that jeans were necessary to my continued existence, and finally my mom broke down and took me to the mall to shop for jeans.
I had no idea where jeans even lived at the mall. Neither did my mom, so she took me to Sears’ basement–clothes-shopping Mecca, as far as she was concerned–which was filled with nothing but rack upon crowded rack of all sorts of end-of-season and slightly irregular discounted clothing. The hunt was on.
I can remember feeling slightly sweaty and nervous as we went through rack upon rack of pants. Hope and anticipation slowly turned to resignation and maybe a touch of despair as the coveted Levi jeans eluded me. Until, shoved on a rack between all manner of other, non-jean pants, there they were. Dark indigo, stiff and scratchy, a bit irregular, and two sizes too large. I didn’t care. They said Levi Strauss and Company on them. They had a label, not just on the inside, but on the outside where everyone could see. Yes, she does fit in. She is wearing jeans. Levi’s jeans.
This story always makes me tear up a bit. I’m not sure if I get emotional in empathy for my younger self or if it’s empathy for my mom who so wanted to give me what I wanted even though she was already giving me everything that I needed.
Mom is a maker. I grew up eating homemade food. There was very little processed food in the house. Along with wanting labels in my clothes, I wished we had more food that came in boxes. Boxes of sweetened cereal, boxes of cookies, boxes of toaster pastries. We only ate unsweetened cereal. We were met with homemade peanut butter cookies after a long day at school. And if we wanted something a bit more pastry-like, we ate bread, butter and sugar. White bread, spread with softened butter and sprinkled with granulated sugar. Place another piece of white bread on top and press it all down, embedding the sweet grains into the butter below and the bread above so it wouldn’t spill out on the counter when you raised it up to take a bite.
Bread, butter and sugar was the less-fancy and uncooked version of cinnamon toast. There is something about the softness of the bread, the unctuousness of the butter and the grainy sweetness of the sugar that was just magic. I can still taste it although I haven’t made a bread, butter and sugar sandwich in probably 30-plus years.
Maybe my fondness for that flavor combination fostered my fondness for Moravian Sugar Cake. I could probably eat my weight in Moravian sugar cake. White bread dough enriched with potato and topped with butter and sugar, all baked together into a sweet, sticky mass. Heat changes and elevates the bread/butter/sugar combination of my childhood snack. The sugars caramelize. The butter intensifies and browns, becoming nutty. The bread bakes up tender and just a bit chewy. Perfect.
As much as I love Moravian sugar cake, I have made room for a new love in my life. Another, grown-up version of my sweet, buttery sandwiches. Kouign Amann, or Breton Butter Cake, is my new obsession. It isn’t as easy to whip up as Moravian sugar cake to be sure. But the payoff might even be more satisfying.
Made like a yeast-raised croissant (croissant boulangerie), kouign amann is a caramelized, sticky, gooey, crunchy/crackly-on-the-outside-tender-on-the-inside, flaky delight that takes the bread/butter/sugar trinity up to eleven.
My Quest: Making Kouign Amann
Since I tell folks to be Fearless in the Kitchen, I approached my chosen quest to make kouign amann with Bravado and Swagger. Several hours later, I emerged from the fray a bit chastened and humbled, but also bearing one of the most delicious baked goods ever. I breathed a sigh of relief, especially after looking around on the Internet and realizing that kouign amann isn’t necessarily beautiful, regardless of who makes it. And although in food blog world, most books are of necessity judged by their covers–enjoying the photographs is immediate while enjoying the actual food requires some work–I implore you to look beyond the kouign amann’s frumpy, rustic appearance and imagine the alchemy that can occur when three basic elements–bread, butter, sugar–are layered together just so and then transformed in our kitchen’s modern crucible.
Kouign Amann: Things to Know Going In
- Things are going to get sticky and gooey once you start rolling in the sugar. Just be prepared for it. I have never been more acutely reminded of the hygroscopic properties of sugar than when making this dough. What had been a gorgeous, smooth “book” of dough glistening with sugar crystals turned into a sweaty, slightly sullen mass in the fridge. I soldiered on, and so should you.
- I didn’t find it necessary to measure my sugar. When it came time to layer it into the mix, I just sprinkled it very liberally both on the counter and then on the dough so it would get worked in on both sides.
- You can minimize the gooey-sticky factor during the rolling process by only sprinkling the sugar on top of the dough rather than underneath as well. Personally, I think it’s easier to get a nice even layer of sugar if you sprinkle it on both sides. Just deal with the stickiness by dusting with sugar rather than flour.
- Use the best butter you can, and use salted. Try to find a European-style cultured butter. It will have more character than “sweet” butter. If you have access to the glorious butter of Brittany, by all means, use it. I used Elle & Vire brand that I happened to find at the local Harris-Teeter, and it worked beautifully. Yay, me!
- I found that the what-I-thought-were fine sugar crystals turned into jagged shards of glass that cut through dough and butter layers indiscriminately. The good news is that I still ended up with lovely, flaky layers. You will too if you make sure to refrigerate the dough between turns, no matter how gloppy and messy it is to wrap the sticky mass in plastic wrap.
- The next time I make this, I may try to whir up my sugar in the blender to make homemade powdered sugar, hopefully minimizing the jagged crystal horror.
- I didn’t worry too much about rolling the finished dough into a true square since I cut off all four edges. I didn’t wast the edges, though. I baked the two skinny ones off as “bread sticks” and coiled the two larger ends up and baked them in ramekins like cinnamon rolls. These turned out great, so if you want to cut all your dough in strips, coil it up and bake them in a tin as pull-apart cinnamon roll type deals, I think that would work really well. Not traditional, but delicious.
I did not develop my own recipe for this bread. I deferred to an expert who has been making kouign amann every day for about thirty years. I tried to follow his procedure as closely as possible, although his dough didn’t appear to be wet and like mine was, even though he rolled in sugar on both sides. Sigh. There is always room for improvement. Fortunately, experimentation and practice will be tasty.
Here’s the video I watched three times before going for it.
And here’s the link for the kouign amann recipe and written procedure. The video is there too, should you want to watch it again. I’m not reprinting the recipe here because aside from not measuring the sugar, I made my kouign amann exactly as written.
If you have ever wanted to make kouign amann but have been afraid to try it, I hope this little post has helped to allay any fears you have. And if you’ve never heard of kouign amann before but it sounds right up your alley, I encourage you to go up that alley and make some for yourself. Even if yours is less-than-perfect, as mine certainly was, if you are using the best ingredients you can get your hands on, it will be delicious. Honest.
What do you think? Would you make, or have you ever made, kouign amann? If you’ve made it, I’d love to hear from you. And if you haven’t but decide to give it a shot, I’d love to hear from you, too!
Thanks so much for spending some time with me, and have a wonderful day!