Before you look down at the instructions for making these kouign amann and start questioning my sanity, my definition of "doable," or both, let me explain. These pastries aren't at all hard, and could even be described as easy once you get the hang of it — but they're not quick, and they do require a little more concentration and effort than whipping up a batch of brownies. The recipe is lengthy and can look intimidating because I broke each step down to it's basic parts (with photos!).
At their heart, kouign amann are laminated pastries just like croissants and puff pastry. Those dramatic flakey layers are the result of sealing a layer of butter into the pastry dough, and then folding, rolling, re-folding, and re-rolling until that one layer becomes hundreds of super thin layers of butter and pastry. This sounds complicated, but it's really just a matter of patience.
The key to success with kouign amann is not pushing anything too fast. This is why the actual hands-on time is only about 30 minutes, but the pastries still take all afternoon to make. All the downtime is just to give the dough time to rise and to give the butter time to chill in the fridge between laminating steps (called "turns"). Keeping the butter chilled is crucial for creating all the lovely, flakey layers of pastry. If you skimp on chilling time, the butter will get too warm and start being absorbed by the dough; this will give you something tasty, no doubt, but not quite the flakey confection we're aiming for.
If you don't have a whole afternoon to make the kouign amann from start to finish (or don't want to get up at 6am to make them for breakfast), there are a few places where you can break up the work and make this recipe over a few days. The pastry dough can be mixed, left to rise, and then refrigerated for up to 24 hours before continuing with the recipe. The shaped kouign amann can also be covered, refrigerated overnight, and baked the next morning.
Definitely read through the whole recipe and flip through the gallery before you begin. Take it slow and return the pastry to the fridge if you suspect the butter is getting warm. Go one step at a time and I guarantee you'll be nibbling your own kouign amann in no time.
How to Make Kouign Amann
Makes 12 individual pastries
Inspiration and methods for this recipe were drawn from several different sources, namely Flour, Too by Joanne Chang, Patisserie by Christophe Felder, and David Lebovitz's Kouign Amann recipe. A debt of thanks to each.
What You Need
1 cup water, room temperature
2 teaspoons active dry or instant yeast
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces (2 sticks) cold salted butter, plus extra to grease the pans (See Recipe Note)
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided, plus extra for shaping the pastries
Stand mixer, optional
Wooden spoon or stiff spatula
Measuring cups and spoons
French rolling pin (see Recipe Notes)
Ruler (not essential, but handy!)
12-cup muffin tin or 12 pastry rings
Pizza wheel or chefs knife
1. Mix the dough: Combine the water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a mixing bowl, if kneading by hand). Let stand for a few minutes to dissolve. Add 2 1/2 cups of the flour (reserving 1/4 cup for later) and the salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until a floury, shaggy dough is formed.
2. Knead the dough: Fit your mixer with a dough hook attachment and knead the dough at low speed for 3 to 4 minutes, until the dough is slightly tacky but smooth. If the dough sticks to the sides of the bowl, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time and knead until the dough is smooth. If the dough feels very stiff and dry, add 1 tablespoon of water at a time and knead until the dough is smooth. Alternatively, knead the dough by hand against the counter for 5 to 8 minutes until smooth.
3. Let the dough rise for 1 hour: Cover the mixing bowl and let the dough rise for one hour, until doubled in size. (If your mixing bowl is very floury, clean it before letting the dough rise; I don't usually find this to be necessary.)
4. Chill the dough: Once the dough has doubled in bulk, place it in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes or as long as overnight. Chilling the dough makes it easier to roll out and prevents the butter from melting in the following steps.
5. Begin pounding the butter: When you are ready to roll out the dough and make the kouign amann, pound the butter. This step softens the butter enough to roll it out with the dough, but while keeping it chilled — warm butter will be absorbed by the dough rather than forming layers.
Sprinkle your counter with a tablespoon or two of the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Lay the butter on top and sprinkle with another tablespoon or two of flour. Gently begin tapping the top of the butter with your rolling pin, and then pound more forcefully once the flour sticks to the butter.
6. Continue pounding the butter until supple: Pound the butter flat, then fold it in half using the pastry scraper. Try not to touch the butter with your hands. Pound the butter flat and fold it in half again. Repeat another 2 to 3 times until the butter is very supple, flattens within a few hits of the rolling pin, and folds easily. Sprinkle with additional flour as necessary to prevent the butter from sticking or smearing on the counter or rolling pin.
Pound the butter into a rectangle roughly 6 inches by 10 inches. Transfer for a baking sheet and refrigerate while you roll out the dough. (Do not refrigerate the butter for longer than 15 minutes or you will need to pound it to suppleness again.)
7. Roll out the dough: Sprinkle your counter with flour and transfer the dough on top. Roll the dough into a rectangle roughly 12 inches by 20 inches.
8. Wrap the butter in the dough: Remove the butter from the fridge and transfer it to the middle of the dough. Fold one half of the dough over the butter and fold the other half on top, like folding a letter. Roll it out slightly to press the layers together, then fold it again into thirds.
9. Begin "turning" the dough: A "turn" is the process of rolling and folding the dough in order to create very thin layers of butter and dough. You will complete 4 total turns to make the kouign amann: 2 turns now, chill the dough, and then the final 2 turns. If the butter squishes through a layer of dough at any point, rub it with a little flour. If it is very warm in your kitchen and the butter seems to be melting, chill the dough for 30 minutes between every turn rather than after 2 turns. Keep the counter, your rolling pin, and the surface of the pastry well-floured.
10. "Turn" the dough 2 times: Rotate the package of dough and butter so that the narrower, open end is facing you, like you're about to read a book. Roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding a letter.
Rotate the dough 90 degrees so that the open end is again facing you, like a book. Roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding a letter. You have now completed 2 turns.
11. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes: Transfer the dough to the baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 30 minutes. Do not refrigerate much longer than 30 minutes or the butter will start to become brittle and may break as you try to roll it out.
12. "Turn" the dough another 2 times and sprinkle with sugar: Remove the dough from the fridge and transfer it to a well-floured counter. With the open end facing you (like a book), roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. Sprinkle it all over with 3/4 cups of sugar and press lightly with the rolling pin to help it stick. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding a letter.
Rotate the dough 90 degrees so that the open end is again facing you, like a book. Roll the dough out to a rectangle 12 inches wide by 20 inches long. Sprinkle it all over with the remaining 3/4 cups of sugar and press lightly with the rolling pin to help it stick. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up, like folding a letter. If any sugar falls out, press it back into the folds. You have now completed 4 total turns.
13. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes: Transfer the dough to the baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 30 minutes.
14. Prepare the muffin tins or pastry rings: Rub the insides of the muffin tins or pastry rings amply with butter. Arrange the pastry rings on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Set aside.
15. Roll out the kouign amann dough: Sprinkle the counter with sugar. Remove the dough from the fridge and transfer it to the counter. Sprinkle a little additional sugar over the top of the dough. Roll the dough out to a rectangle roughly 8 inches wide by 24 inches long and roughly 1/4-inch thick.
16. Shape the kougin amann: Slice the dough down the length to form two strips that are 4 inches wide by 24 inches long. Cut each strip into 4-inch squares to create 12 squares. Fold the corners of each square toward the center. Pick up each pastry and tuck it firmly into the muffin tins or pastry rings. If cooking in a muffin tin, it will feel like you're squishing the pastry; this is ok.
→ Make Ahead Tip: At this point, the kouign amann can be covered and refrigerated overnight. The next day, let the pastries come to room temperature and rise for about an hour before baking.
17. Let the kouign amann rise: Cover the kouign amann loosely with plastic and let them rise until slightly puffy, 30 to 40 minutes.
18. Preheat the oven to 400°F. About 20 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 400°F with a rack placed in the center of the oven.
19. Bake the kouign amann: Set the muffin tin on a baking sheet to catch butter drips during baking. Place the kouign amann in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 350°F. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through baking. Pastries are finished when the tops are deep golden and the tips look like they might be just starting to burn.
20. Cool briefly and then remove pastries from pan: Transfer the pan of kouign amann to a cooling rack and let the pastries stand until they are just cool enough to handle. Gently wiggle them out of the muffin tins or pastry molds, and set them on the cooling rack to finish cooling completely. Do not let the kouign amann cool completely in the pan or the sugar will harden and make the pastries impossible to remove.
21. Serve kouign amann immediately: Kouign amann can be served as soon as they are cool enough not to burn your mouth or you can let them cool to room temperature. They are best if served the same day they are made.
Using Salted Butter: Salted butter is traditional for kouign amann, and I recommend using the best brand you can find or afford. I used Kerry Gold when developing this recipe.
French Rolling Pin: A french rolling pin is a solid piece of wood and is the best tool for pounding the butter. However, the butter can also be pounded with a ball-bearing rolling pin (grip it by the pin itself and not by the handle) or with the smooth side of a meat mallet.
Making a Single Kouign Amann Cake: To make a single kouign amann cake instead of individual pastries, roll the final dough out to a large square shape and fold in the corners, like making one gigantic kouign amann. Transfer the cake to a buttered 10-inch cake pan and bake as directed.
Variations (a.k.a Things to Stuff in the Middle): a square of chocolate, a spoonful of jam, or a few fresh berries or chopped fruit. You can also mix a little cinnamon into the sugar sprinkled into the layers to make cinnamon-sugar kouign amann.