Not too long ago, most people didn't know what a kouign amann was, let alone how delicious it is. If you were familiar with the pastry—a buttery Breton specialty that's somewhere between a croissant and brioche, with a layer of crispy caramelized sugar on top—you probably couldn't shut up about it, and you probably bemoaned the fact that they were, up until recently, rather difficult to find outside of Brittany. (Make them at home? Sure, you can try, but it's not a casual undertaking—just ask David Lebovitz .)
But the times, they are a-changing; recently, kouign amanns have become a bit of a hot ticket, popping up at bakeries like Dominique Ansel in New York and Starter in Oakland. But what if you don't live in New York or Oakland? Well, lucky you—boxes of ready-to-bake kouign amanns (which shall henceforth be referred to as "KAs") are now available in the freezer section of Trader Joe's. I was excited, but also a little skeptical—could TJ's convenience-oriented take remotely compare to the real deal?
To find out, we tried a TJKA (which comes with a helpful pronunciation guide on the box) next to a DKA, aka Dominique's Kouign Amann, the signature item from Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York (yes, the same Dominique Ansel who rose to international fame with the Cronut—gimmicky as the Cronut may be, Ansel is a talented, classically-trained pastry chef whose other work—like his excellent DKA—deserves to be recognized).
So what makes a good KA? Well, first, you should understand how a KA comes to be: KAs are made by folding sheets of leavened dough over each other, with layers of salted butter and sugar laid between each sheet and on top (similar to Danish or croissant dough, but with fewer layers). As the pastry bakes, the butter steams and separates the dough into layers. And the sugar caramelizes, creating a beautifully burnished cake ("kouign" is the Breton word for "cake;" "amann" means "butter." One New York Times writer described it as "the fattiest pastry in all of Europe.")
Most KAs come in a muffin-esque shape, though Patisserie Kouign Amann in Montreal, where I had my first-ever taste of the cake, bakes large, flat wheels of KA and slices them into triangular pieces (our own Erin Zimmer shows you how it's done).
The best KAs are texturally complex affairs, with a crispy outer crust and tender dough inside; lots of flaky layers studded with gooey sugary nubbins; and a defined hole structure creating all sorts of delightfully varied nooks and crannies. They should be sweet, but not too sweet, with a little hit of salt from the butter. Think of it as something you'd eat more as a calorically decadent breakfast than as dessert.
With all that in mind, onto our KAs!
DKA from Dominique Ansel Bakery ($5.25 each)
DKAs are something of a benchmark for the pastry in New York. I picked one up on my way to the office, and while I don't have a timestamp, it's safe to assume it had been baked within the previous 24 hours.
Appearance: A cylindrical bottom with a bulbous, pointy top, like a mutant species of muffin. The bottom is shiny with butter, while the top is a little more matte. Deep toasty brown color throughout.
Taste: For lack of a better term, fresh, and slightly sweet, but not cloying. The DKA is very buttery and rich, with little ribbons of sugary goo laced throughout the well-defined layers.
Texture: The outer shell is crisp on top, and the caramelized sugar stuck to our teeth and fingers (note that this is not a bad thing). Beneath the crisp top are many moist, rich layers, and plenty of craggy holes. Its inner fluffiness may give you the incorrect impression that the DKA is "light," and trick you into eating two.
Overall Impression: If you've never had a KA and want to your first experience to be with one that's pretty close to the Platonic ideal of one, get a DKA (yep, they're available online. It's tough to really go wrong with the DKA, though they're certainly not the cheapest, and we can't speak to how well they hold up via mail order if you're not able to get on in-person.
Frozen Kouign Amann from Trader Joe's ($3.99 for a box of 4)
Available in frozen packs of four, TJKA require you to proof the dough for 6-7 hours (or overnight) before baking. (All that means is letting the dough sit and rise undisturbed.) Each KA comes in an individual paper cup that you coat with cooking spray before proofing, and they bake at 350°F for 25 min, or until quite dark. For tasting purposes, we let the TJKA cool to room temperature before comparing it to the DKA.
Appearance: Instead of puffing up into the recognizable muffin shape, our KAs flattened out into a sort of oblong football shape while they baked, defying the boundaries of the paper cup. (If we were to make them again, we'd probably proof and bake the frozen cakes in a metal muffin tin to help them retain the right shape.) Shape aside, the KA is an attractive burnished color, with a distinct sugary shine on top.
Taste: Essentially like a croissant dipped in liquid sugar. But that's not a bad thing! While the TJKA is distinctly sweeter than the DKA, it's actually not overwhelming. It's rich but not greasy, and we liked the little nuggets of gooey melted sugar that are scattered throughout. Unlike many frozen laminated pastries, TJKA are made with real butter, and actually taste like real butter. One taste that was missing, however, was the hint of salt.
Texture: We liked the crispy, sticky caramelized top layer right off the bat. Because of the flatter shape, you don't get quite as much textural variety here as you do with the DKA, but the flaky layers are admirably well-defined, and there's some impressive hole structure. There's also a good mix of crunchy-toasty bits and soft, tender dough.
Overall Impression: Pleasantly surprised! "If you served these to me at brunch, I would be pretty happy about it," said one taster, and the response was fairly unanimous. The TJKAs aren't the most traditional version of this classic cake, but we like them for several reasons: first and foremost, they taste good (the ingredient list is pretty straightforward: enriched flour, butter, sugar, water, yeast, and salt, plus a little dough conditioner); second, they're available nationwide; third, they're a bargain; and fourth, when you make KA at home, you get to eat them warm out of the oven, a pleasure that's tough to understate.