Take a buttery croissant, roll it in sugar to form a caramelized crust, and condense it in size so each bite is even more crazy rich. This is, in essence, a kouign amann (pronounced queen ahman), the flaky French pastry that for the past few years has been driving the American bakery world wild. No, it doesn't draw crowds like a Cronut, but for dessert obsessives that dream in butter, it's the greatest new development in American pastry cases.
It's easy to see why a sweeter and extra-buttery croissant would elicit strong emotional responses from all who taste it, but the kouign amann's most agreeable feature is found in the crust: a thin layer of sugar that bakes into a light caramel, encasing all those buttery flakes in a glassy crunch.
A decade ago, you'd be hard pressed to find a kouign amann outside its native Brittany—the pastry can be difficult to find even in France. Today it thrives in Paris as well as American bakeries from D.C. to San Francisco, but its New World epicenter is inarguably New York, thanks in large part to the pastry chef who first brought the dessert to American shores in 2011: Dominique Ansel. Long before the Cronut brought fame to his wildly popular eponymous bakery, the kouign amann was Ansel's signature pastry. Four years later, at least eight other New York bakeries sell kouign amanns, each bringing their own unique spins to the recipe.
That's why I set out to try them all in search of the best.
What Makes a Great Kouign Amann?
The original Breton kouign amann is a far cry from the current versions sold in New York and Paris. "A real kouign amann is really heavy," explains Francois Brunet, chef boulanger for Daniel Boulud's New York restaurants, who hails from Brittany. "Many areas of Brittany are quite poor, and the extra dough from the Sunday home bread was saved, laminated with butter and sugar, and used as a dessert for the evening meal. This recipe—made with the heavier bread dough—calls for 500 grams of butter per kilo of dough! Now, nearly everyone uses croissant dough [with more yeast and rise], which results in a much lighter pastry."
This modern kouign amann calls for layers of laminated dough interspersed with salted butter and sugar. The yeasted dough is then left to rise, coated with sugar, and stuffed into small, bottomless ring molds or (mon dieu!) muffin tins. During baking, moisture between the buttery layers turns to steam, lifting and separating the pastry into distinct flakes. Meanwhile, sugar caramelizes against the metal molds, forming the crunchy crust.*
* An alternate method, still popular in Brittany and in Montreal, calls for the same set of ingredients to be baked in large round metal pans and then served in triangular slices like cake or pizza.
A good kouign amann is all about contrast: a crispy crust (with at least one super-caramelized side) versus a soft interior that's sweet but not too sweet. There should be a lick of salt, too, and some yeasty complexity from the dough itself. Some of the best kouign amanns exhibit a flavor and aroma almost like sourdough bread.
Brunet is impressed with the version from Paris's Larnicol made by MOF patisserie Masion Georges Larnicol. Larnicol's kouign amanns, known as "kouignettes" due to their small size, take the shape of small, shallow cups and are deeply caramelized all the way around. "If you are talking about kouign amann in France," Brunet says, "[Larnicol] is the man."
The Best of New York
Here in New York, the most remarkable thing about the kouign amann scene is how different each version is, despite using the same ostensibly simple ingredient list. Some are as rich as French toast drowned in syrup, while others are so light you could down them as a snack. I originally set out to find the best kouign amann the city has to offer, but in truth, the best kouign amann really depends on what you're after.
This much is certain: Whether you're a long-time fan or a kouign amann virgin, there's never been a better time to dig into this Breton specialty. Here's the cream of the crop in the U.S.'s kouign amann capitol.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
Ansel's DKA (Dominique's Kouign Amann) has been winning over tourists as well as in-the-know pastry connoisseurs for four years, and it remains the standard by which other New York kouign amanns are judged. This one is tall and puffy, airy inside but also quite moist, with a deep buttery richness that you taste in every layer. The caramelized crust is always perfect, an impressive feat considering the bakery has had to scale up production to several hundred a day.
Dominique Ansel Kitchen
At Ansel's newer, more conceptually ambitious shop, there's a similar but distinct kouign amann worth seeking out. It's darker in color thanks to a dose of brown sugar, and perhaps slightly less crisp, but it still bursts with butter and a gentle salty bite. It's less sweet than the original DKA, and tinged with hints of molasses for something that reminds me of the cinnamon-sugar toast with butter that my mother made for me when I was little.
If you had to choose an Ansel kouign amann, which should you get? With this more muted sweetness and complex flavor, the new brown sugar DKA is hard to beat. But you can't go wrong with either.
Though Bisous Ciao is best known for its superb macarons, all it takes is one bite of this crunchy kouign amann to prove that the bakery knows its pastry. The crust, resplendent in flakes and crunch with the crackling joy of a great crème brûlée, is balanced by a lighter, more airy interior. That crumb is only a little sweet, which is good, because the finish is all about that sugar crust.
Bisous doesn't bake a lot of these, so go early to make sure you don't miss out.
Bosie Bakery Harlem
Not to be confused with the company's tea parlor in the West Village, Bosie's Harlem bakery offers a kouign amann with a restrained sweetness and well-baked crumb. But my favorite feature of this pastry is the wonderful yeasty, sourdough flavor that manages to shine through all the butter. The top crust is mostly free of sugar, yet retains just as much crunch as the glossy, caramelized base.
For now, at least, you'll have to head to Harlem for a taste of this superb pastry. It's not available at the West Village location.
Jean-Claude Perennou, the co-owner of this Queens dark horse, is from Brittany, and his visually stunning take on the pastry is quite unique, and one of my favorites among this list. The profile is unusually flat—the kouign amann stands less than an inch high. And instead of the usual folded shape, the layers are wound in a spiral like an old-timey candy store's lollipop. The caramelization on top is so crunchy it reminds me of biting into a oversized palmier.
Said crunch is so important to Perennou that Cannelle only offers the pastry in cool months to prevent the humid heat of summer from softening the crust. Call ahead to see if it's in stock, though it tends be from fall through spring.
Epicerie Boulud's take on the kouign amann is the most delicate and pretty on this list. But the big thing that sets it apart from the pack is the especially light and airy interior that's almost as hollow as an eclair. A bit of buckwheat flour adds grainy texture, a nice throwback to the pastry's Breton roots, where buckwheat was frequently used in the days before cheap refined white flour. It's so light you could down one right before lunch and still have room for that sandwich.
Despite the lightness, there's a buttery finish to every bite, and though the sugary crust isn't that big, its flavor is intensely concentrated. A great lighter option.
Macaron Parlour treats kouign amann dough like hardcore artisan bread by using a 17-hour poolish base that yields an exceptionally delicious, yeasty, fermented flavor. A light hand with the sugar keeps the focus on the dough, but there's still a crunchy, well-caramelized crust to add some sweetness. And at $3, it's a nice value—a dollar or two less expensive than most of the others on this list.
Pain D'Avignon takes a page out of Paris's Larnicol by offering different flavors of kouign amann. Between the plain and crème brûlée versions, I recommend the latter. It's a dense pastry with very little air in between the layers, and it reminds me of chomping into a Chinatown egg custard tart. What it lacks in less-than-exceptional caramelization on the exterior it makes up for with a fragrant vanilla bean custard nestled inside the layers. Different than the others on this list, but worth a try.
Bouchon's kouign amann is flat like a danish and plenty dense—you get lots of butter and caramel in every bite. But that sugar is carefully controlled so it doesn't overwhelm the pastry, and even the super-caramelized base is thankfully not too sweet. At $5.75, it's the most expensive kouign amann on this list. It's also perhaps the most indulgent and intense. Note that it's only available at the original Time Warner Center location.
Las Delicias at the Union Square Farmers Market
Las Delicias opts for a recipe that doesn't hold back on the sweetness. The buttery interior crumb is dense rather than airy, but pleasingly moist—almost custardlike. As for the crust, it doesn't reach quite the level of crunch of others on this list, but it still satisfies. Think of it as a single-serving bread pudding.
Not one to miss out on a food trend, Trader Joe's sells frozen kouign amanns that you proof (i.e. let rise on the counter) and bake yourself. Last year, the Serious Eats team concluded that it was a pretty respectable facsimile of the real thing, save for a few caveats. I tend to agree.
The buttery richness and crunchy crust are there, though the pastry is very sweet and doesn't rise as much as it should. On the plus side, since you're making it at home, you can eat it while it's still warm and fresh. And for a pastry that measures its optimal life span in hours, that's a beautiful thing.