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In the grand tradition of French pâtissiers, Catherine Adams makes the classic buttery Breton pastries - a piece of cake once you know how.
Kouign-amann, which sounds something like "queen-ah-mahn", are pastry cakes originating in Brittany. The name comes from the Breton words for cake (kouign) and butter (amann) - fitting, since these pastries are made by pairing a yeasted dough with a slab of butter, folded and rolled multiple times to create the many layers. As the butter melts it makes steam, which separates the layers for a fluffy interior. The pastry is then dusted with a sugar-salt mix that caramelises as it cooks, resulting in a crunchy exterior.
The secret to excellent kouign-amann is ensuring that the dough and butter slab are of a similar firmness. I use iced water when making the dough to keep it cool. It's also important to rest and chill the dough between folding and rolling.
Once you've made a smooth, shiny dough, it needs to prove until doubled in size, and to give the gluten and yeast time to develop. The time this takes depends on the temperature of your kitchen. The proved dough will be quite soft, so chill it until firm to make it easier to handle. While the dough is firming, prepare the butter slab.
Draw a rectangular template on baking paper with a pen, then turn the paper over so the butter doesn't come into contact with the ink. Break pieces of softened butter to fit your template, then fold in the surrounding baking paper to cover and roll over it with a rolling pin to create a smooth slab of even thickness. Chill the butter slab briefly so it's pliable and just a fraction firmer than the dough.
Once the butter and dough are ready, roll the dough into a rectangle and place the butter slab on top, about five centimetres from the edge closest to you. Now it's time to create the layers. Remember, if you start with even layers you'll have consistent layering as you go. Fold down the top third of dough over the butter, then fold the bottom third up, as you would a letter. You'll end up with three even layers of dough, with two layers of butter in between.
Before rolling, dust the bench and dough with a little flour to prevent sticking, but not so much to make the dough dry. Be sure to brush off excess flour as you go, otherwise the layers may not bond. It's important to work quickly when rolling so the butter doesn't melt and squeeze out or the dough doesn't become too soft (if it does, put it in the fridge to firm up).
The rolling process is similar to that for puff pastry: roll, fold by thirds, turn 90 degrees, rest and repeat twice more. Rest the dough in plastic wrap in the fridge and make each 90-degree turn in the same direction. A good way to keep track is to mark the top point of the dough on the plastic wrap with a marker before refrigerating, and roll away from you when you roll again.
On the third fold-and-roll, dust with the sugar-salt mixture; this adds flavour and aids caramelisation throughout the layers during cooking, especially on the outside. There's no need to rest or chill the dough again at this point (unless it has become soft); the pastry can now be cut and shaped.
A muffin tray is perfect for baking kouign-amann. Cut the dough into squares, sprinkle with extra sugar, then ease them into the holes, pinching the corners together in the centre to create a four-leaf clover shape. At this point, you can refrigerate them overnight for freshly baked kouign-amann for breakfast.
After baking, remove them immediately from the tin; otherwise the pastries will stick as the sugar cools. Ease them out with a palette knife and tongs (be careful, caramel will be burning hot), and place them on a wire rack upside down to cool for 15 minutes. I serve kouign-amann for breakfast with tea or coffee - they're the best way to start the day.
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