The Many Lessons of Kouign-Amann

On Avenue du Mont-Royal Est in the heart of Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood is a patisserie called Au Kouign-Amann, specializing in a classic version of the pastry that gives it the name.

The kouign-amann (Breton for “butter cake”) has always been among my favorite pastries for how it manages to convey comfort with a few simple ingredients, but I’ll never forget my first bite of the bakery’s version. I leaned against the slate-blue framed glass windows of the brick storefront on a warm late-June afternoon, holding two slightly warm slices tucked neatly in a brown bag, and took my first bite. I walked away wondering what had just happened to me. That delicate slice had managed to balance light buttery layers with a deep nutty flavor and slightly caramelized crust.

And, in that moment, balance was just what I needed.

I was on holiday with my family of four for the first time, and the preceding weeks had been deeply challenging. Covid had made its rounds through our home, starting with Aṣa, my 3-year-old. Within 12 hours of a positive test, she had a fever so high that she had a febrile seizure, losing consciousness. Another 10 hours in a hospital passed before she woke again, an ordeal that left me feeling like my spirit had fled my physical body. She immediately wanted everything to go back to normal, asking for her iPad and demanding to go home. But I wasn’t anywhere near normal — and wouldn’t be for a very long time. For weeks afterward, I experienced a kind of grief that seemed to follow me everywhere like a ghostly companion, casting its shadow across my work, lingering in my Brooklyn home and coming with me on our trip.

I sought refuge in the kitchen, where I’ve always found grief to be at its most reasonable. Grief occupies all of the senses, but in the kitchen, it neither aids in my cooking nor meddles with it.

A round of a butter mixture is placed on top of the dough to begin the lamination process.Credit…Kelly Marshall for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.
The dough is folded over the butter to create a kind of package, then rolled and folded repeatedly to create alternating layers of butter and dough. This process results in flaky layers in the finished pastry.Credit…Kelly Marshall for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.

So I rolled up my sleeves and made as many recipes as I could in an attempt to gently nudge my spirit back into my body. I kept returning to that kouign-amann, and what I had experienced outside the bakery. I wanted anything to keep me from the memory of Aṣa’s small, sweaty body, shaking and unconscious, being loaded into an ambulance.

I needed an all-consuming project, something that didn’t come easily to me. And that’s when I reached out to the patisserie in Montreal and asked if I could observe a shift.

Nicolas Henry, the bakery’s chef and owner, encouraged me to do more than simply watch. He offered me the opportunity to put on an apron and chef’s whites and work a morning shift. So I did.

I talked with Mr. Henry and his assistant Agnès Julià Maset about my search for a recipe that demanded the kind of attention and determination that would keep my mind occupied, a recipe like kouign-amann.

I nodded as Mr. Henry focused on the dull golden dough on the wooden counter before us. His version starts out as simple dough, leavened with both sourdough starter and yeast. The dough is left to ferment and develop its deep flavor overnight, then laminated with a mix of creamed butter and sugar. Unlike the mini kouignettes I have encountered, Mr. Henry’s is made in a skillet as a large, round cake.

Back in Brooklyn once more, I set about trying to make my own version, recalling what Ms. Maset had said as I worked beside her: Keep your hands moving and work with intention. Work the dough as little as you can. Don’t touch it until you know what your next steps will be.

Serve a slice of kouign-amann with a cup of coffee for an ideal breakfast or afternoon snack.Credit…Kelly Marshall for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.

Making a kouign-amann at home is no small feat. Each step is simple and straightforward, but you have to work quickly and with precision. As with most laminated doughs, there is an ease in working the dough that comes only with time.

And time offers many gifts. It creates distance from grief, as each day layers over the experience like thin sheets of ice, obscuring it but never fully concealing it. It also allows you to grow in a practice.

I made the pastry six times over a period of months before I felt assured enough to work with ease. Each kouign-amann seemed to mark the passage of time, each one a step forward as I got closer to uncovering the secrets in Mr. Henry’s dough and farther from my grief.

I’m not recreating Mr. Henry’s method exactly here, though it’s close. For the real thing, you’ll have to go to Montreal. But for a recipe that feels like healing, a gift in process and result — warm slices of a yeast-risen pastry with soft layers, deep buttery flavor and a chewy, caramelized top — take the time to make mine.

Recipe: Classic Kouign-Amann

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