The many lessons of kouign-amann

By Yewande Komolafe, The New York Times

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-19 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.

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 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 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, 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 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.

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 Henry’s dough and farther from my grief.

I’m not re-creating 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.

Classic Kouign-Amann

A yeast-risen pastry with soft layers, deep buttery flavor and a chewy, caramelized top, this recipe, adapted from Nicolas Henry of the Montreal patisserie Au Kouign-Amann, celebrates the classic Breton kouign-amann, traditionally made as a round skillet cake and served as slices. There’s no shortcut and no substitute for the repetition needed to perfect this pastry. But you are in good hands: The process is a series of simple steps, with plenty of opportunities to make ahead. And the results of your efforts are sure to please, whether it accompanies your morning coffee, serves as a delightful afternoon snack or stunningly ends a meal. You’ll need an oven-safe nonstick skillet for this cake. A cast-iron skillet will work, but will produce a deeper, more caramelized result.

Recipe from Nicolas Henry

Adapted by Yewande Komolafe

Yield: 1 (12-inch) kouign-amann

Total time: 3 hours, plus at least 5 hours’ rising and 30 minutes’ resting


For the Dough:

  • 1 1/3 cups/320 grams warm water (110 degrees)
  • 3 (1/4-ounce) packets/21 grams instant dry yeast
  • 3 3/4 cups/495 grams all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt (such as Morton’s table salt), plus more for sprinkling
  • 1/4 cup/60 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil (optional)

For the Butter:

  • 1 3/4 cups/395 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups/250 grams granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt (such as Morton’s table salt)

For the Syrup:

  • 1/2 cup/100 grams granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 to 3 cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2 to 3 whole cloves, crushed


1. Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, add the warm water and sprinkle in the yeast. Add 2 tablespoons/15 grams flour from the measured amount and stir to combine. Let stand until foamy, about 6 minutes.

2. Add the remaining flour and the salt, and, using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir the mixture just until it forms a shaggy dough. Add the butter and sesame oil (if using), and turn the mixer to the lowest speed. Mix, scraping down the dough hook as needed, until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a bowl or freezer bag. Cover or seal and transfer to the refrigerator. Allow the dough to slowly rise until doubled in size, 5 hours and up to 12.

3. While the dough rises, prepare the butter for lamination: In the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter, sugar and salt on low speed until incorporated, about 3 minutes. Transfer the butter mixture to a sheet of parchment paper and, using an offset or rubber spatula, spread into a 10-inch round. Cover with another sheet of parchment, wrap and transfer to the refrigerator to chill while the dough rises.

4. Make the syrup: In a small pot over low heat, combine the sugar, 1/2 cup/110 grams water, orange zest, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely while the spices steep and infuse the syrup. Strain out the solids before use. At this point, the syrup can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

5. Generously butter the bottom and sides of the inside of a 12-inch ovenproof nonstick skillet. Ladle 2 tablespoons/40 grams cooled syrup onto the bottom of the pan and swirl.

6. About 15 minutes before you’re ready to start rolling your dough, remove the butter round from the refrigerator. Transfer the dough from the refrigerator to a lightly floured work surface. Flour the top and use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a 12-inch round.

7. Unwrap the butter round and center it on the dough round. Fold 2 sides of the dough, along with the butter over itself so the dough meets in the center of the butter layer. Using your fingers, tap down lightly on the folded edges, just enough to adhere the dough to the butter. Fold the remaining 2 sides so they meet in the center, sealing the butter like an envelope. Press down on the folded edges again to adhere. At this point, you should have what looks like an 8-inch-square dough package.

8. Flour the work surface beneath the dough, and lightly flour the top of the dough. Roll the dough out into a 12-by-18-inch rectangle.

9. Fold the top short side of the dough a third of the way down the length of the dough. Fold the bottom of the dough up and over the remaining two-thirds of the dough so the short sides meet. Using your fingers, tap the folded edge just enough so it adheres. This is the first fold.

10. Turn the dough so that the short sides are parallel to you. Lightly flour the surface and top of the dough again. Roll the dough into a 12-by-18-inch rectangle. Fold the top short side of the dough one-third of the way down the length of the dough. Fold the bottom of the dough up and over the remaining two-thirds of the dough so the short sides meet. Using your fingers, tap the folded edge just enough so it adheres. This is the second fold. Return the folded dough, wrapped in a sheet of parchment, to chill in the refrigerator for 10 minutes if you find the butter is beginning to melt between steps.

11. Turn the dough so that the short sides are parallel to you. Roll the dough out into a 14-inch square. Fold the edges on the top half of the dough over in such a way that the top 2 corners meet in the center of the dough, forming what looks like a triangle at the top. Fold the bottom in such a way that the 2 corners meet in the middle. You should have a square dough with a cross cutting through the center to the edges. Roll it into a 14-inch square.

12. Lift and pull the corners in to round out the edges. Flip the dough so that the cross side is down. Pat the dough down to even out the round shape, you should have a roughly 12-inch circle at this point. Using your hand to support the bottom, transfer the dough cross-side down to the prepared skillet. Using the tip of a paring knife, poke holes, 1-inch apart, all around the dough. Ladle 2 tablespoons/40 grams of syrup over the top and spread across the surface of the dough using your fingers. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow to rest at room temperature until the surface springs back slightly when you press it with a finger, about 30 minutes.

13. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Dimple the dough by pressing down all over the surface with your fingers. Bake until light golden brown, 45 minutes.

14. Flip the kouign-amann onto a board or the underside of a baking sheet without a lip. Pour 2 tablespoons/40 grams syrup over the bottom of the skillet and slide the kouign-amann back into the pan, cross side up. Brush some syrup over the top, sprinkle with a pinch of fine salt and return to the oven. Bake until you can hear the butter bubbling at the edges and the surface is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit in the pan for 5 minutes. Run an offset spatula or a knife along the edges to release them. Set a baking rack in a baking sheet, and flip the kouign-amann onto it, brush with the remaining syrup, sprinkle the top with a pinch of fine salt, and allow to cool slightly. Slide to a serving platter with the cross side down.

15. Serve the kouign-amann in wedges while still warm. Use an offset spatula or a knife along the bottom of the pastry to release and lift each wedge from the plate. The kouign-amann will last, wrapped, at room temperature, for 1 to 2 days, or frozen for up to 2 weeks. Toast slices in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes before serving.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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