counterfactual pastry development

I’m back from France, and starting a new job next week. I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep the weekly emails going, but I’m going to beg your understanding in advance if the rhythm hiccups. On the bright side, the new gig ought to give me plenty of things to say about agriculture and our food system today… but for now, here’s Kouign Amann quest, part 2. You just know how this is going to end.


I may as well say it now — we will leave Brittany 3 days later, with a trail of half-eaten kouign amann behind us. In the birthplace of kouign amann, we will not have a single kouign amann that we actually enjoy. On the other hand, the galettes will entrance us. Galettes for breakfast, eaten standing in the Breton drizzle. Galettes for second breakfast, wrapped around hot, garlicky sausages. Galettes with andouille for lunch, galettes with langoustine for dinner. And best of all, pre-dinner galettes and post-lunch galettes, what they call B&B — blé noir et beurre

No one cares how galettes are made, because everyone knows what a galette is. It’s a crepe of buckwheat batter that you can fold around a filling. This, Vaughn tells us, is called equifinality. Equifinality has resulted in endless variation. In Lannilis we have galettes made with buckwheat that’s had most of its bran removed. They are yeasty and fresh and remind me of injera. In a creperie of no particular repute in Saint Malo we have galettes made with a flour that is dark but not coarse. The galette maker is a middle-aged Frenchman and looks as forbidding as the rock the city sits on. His batter is thinner than the one we had in Douarnenez, but he too scrubs his batter across the griddle rather than swirling it. He ferments it for two days, because he likes it that way and no one tells him not to. In Saint Malo’s most famous creperie, the one with branches in Paris and Tokyo, we eat galettes rolled to resemble makizushi. Their B&B comes with a little Breton flag - the jaunty design is rather let down by the black and white color scheme. The galettes here are dark and brittle, and the taste of fermentation is as strong as the taste of buckwheat. The cooks drag the batter round in a single circular stroke, zen masters at the griddle. And then there was this guy in Dinan, buttering our B&B with a solid block of butter. 

From Douarnenez to Locronan to Saint Pabu and Saint Malo, the kouign amann are nearly identical. We often see bakers laminating dough in the back. A great many hands were turning out strikingly similar kouign amann. The rules of the L’Association de Kouign Amann de Douarnenez have no legal force, because they are not an IGP, but they seem to be widely observed. It’s not clear how much this is due their proselytizing, and how much is customer expectation. In Saint Malo the locals gushed about a bakery whose kouign we had earlier discarded, after exactly one bite each, in the poubelle

Heartbreak, chapter 1, photo from Vaughn.

If L’Association had its way, the term kouign amann would only apply to pastries made with:

  • A butter to flour ratio of 0.75:1, and equal weights of sugar to flour 

  • A specific lamination technique - the dough must be laminated by hand, piece by piece (a single piece being intended for 4, 6, or 8 portions), and a three-turn dough with sugar incorporated from the first

  • A specific shaping - a square folded into a disk, then flipped over so the smooth side is up, and scored in diamonds. 

The result is something like what’s in the photo above. A flat disk, chewy and hard. A three turn lamination gives you fewer layers, the sheets of dough are thicker, the use of bread dough ensures that they are chewy. The pastry is dragged down by the butter and sugar, and the sugar is never sufficiently caramelized, because using this much sugar makes it impossible to do a really dark bake. Controlling the process has largely had the intended result — kouign amann across Brittany taste much the same, and they are different than the kouign amann anywhere else. 

The problem is that kouign amann elsewhere are better. Some combination of one-upmanship between patissiers, the modern sheeter, and the pressure to scale have given us kouign amann that look like this. 

I don’t know who first made a kouign amann this way. The one in the photo is one of mine, and I based my recipe on Dominique Ansel’s. These kouign are clearly relatives of the ones in Douarnenez. They are sweetened by laminating the dough with sugar, kouign amann being the only pastry, as far as I know, where this is done. They are shaped using the same fold that the bakers in Brittany use, but they are not served upside down. At the same time, there’s a clear relationship between this kouign and a modern croissant. Both those doughs are five turn laminations, and this kouign has a butter:flour ratio of 0.65:1, which is in line with a croissant and a notch down from the traditional kouign

People seem to care how kouign amann are made, and this has resulted in greater homogeneity than if they had simply specified that the final result had to conform to certain criteria. 

The innovations that resulted in recipes like Dominque Ansel’s aren’t huge departures from the original, and Breton bakers make croissants too. I have to assume that at some point some baker thought it might be nice to have a kouign amann that was a little lighter, a little more complex, a little less like rubber bands and melted frosting. It’s not hard to imagine that if the rule was that a kouign amann had to look like a kouign amann, the ones in Brittany would have wound up pretty close to what I was making. 

I don’t know if there’s a lesson in this, other than that you should eat galettes instead of kouign amann if you go to Brittany. There aren’t really kouign amann rebels, bakers who’ve returned their Breizh credentials in disgust and gone their own way, the way there have been in the world of wine. The galettieres don’t think of themselves as innovators either, they just get up in the morning and make the galettes.


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