Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Kouign Amann AKA that crazy pastry

Why do I do these things? Oy.

When my blogging buddies at 37 Cooks hooked up with Bob's Red Mill, it was a no-brainer for me. I probably have flour in my veins at this point. I can bake bread with my eyes closed. Possibly even in my sleep. Cookies and pies and cakes and muffins and quickbreads are my friends.

So when it came time to decide what to make for the challenge using flour, what did I sign up for?

Not something simple. Not something I'd made before. Oh no. *shaking my head*

I decided to make kouign amann - something I've never made ... and in fact, I've never even tasted it. I don't even know how to say it.

After reading about it and reading recipes, I saw that it was basically a laminated dough, like croissants, but with a lot more sugar. How could that possibly be bad?

I found a whole lot of recipes online. There were more or fewer folds, more or less sugar, more or less butter ... in other words, not a whole lot of agreement. I looked at recipes from The Kitchn and at David Lebovitz, and a few other sites.

I took what I read, along with my own experience with croissants, and came up with a recipe. Some sites suggested that you could add a dollop of jam to the top, or chocolate inside, or other flavors. I decided to add cinnamon to the sugar layer. Because I like cinnamon.

My first attempt was good, but my second was better. Some of the recipes I looked at suggested adding the sugar to the butter or pouring the sugar on top of the butter. The first time around, I poured about half the sugar on top of the butter and used the other half as a layer between folds.

See the layers of cinnamon sugar? Mmmmm....
The second time, I layered the sugar between dough layers and left the butter alone. I found that the sugar made some nice layers, and since I had added cinnamon, you could see the layers. It was much nicer than when the butter was mixed with sugar.

Like croissants or pie dough, the key to making this recipe is to make sure the butter never gets too soft. It needs to be soft and pliable enough to roll, but not so soft that it begins to incorporate itself into the dough. If it's done right, you get buttery, flaky layers.

But even if it goes wrong, it's not all bad. You end up with a very buttery sweet dough, rather than layers.

To keep the butter at the right texture, it helps to be working in a cool room, but if that's not possible, the next best thing is to work really quickly and refrigerate the dough whenever the butter seems to be getting squishy rather than being pliable.

If that means you refrigerate after each fold, then that's what ya gotta do. If the butter isn't getting squishy, then you can refrigerate just when the recipe suggests. If you're working in an unheated igloo, then maybe you don't need to refrigerate at all.

It also helps to use a high-quality butter that doesn't melt into a puddle at room temperature, but I've made croissants with pretty much every butter you can imagine, from the cheapest store brand to boutique brands. Many people suggest using European butters. Or, you could go completely crazy and make your own butter.

Or not.

I've also fiddled around with the baking temperatures. The recipes I looked at ranged from 400 degrees to 350 degrees with baking times ranging from 25 to 45 minutes.

The deal is that you want a high heat for the water in the butter to turn to steam and help puff the pastry. So the higher baking temperature makes sense for that. I normally bake croissants at between 400 and 375 degrees.

But, on the other hand, we've got a lot of sugar that can burn. The scrap pieces that I cooked at 375 degrees were painfully close to having a bitter burned sugar on the bottom, and they were protected by a baking sheet AND silicone muffin cups. A few minutes longer, or an upward temperature fluctuation could have been a problem.

And after all the work involved in these, I really didn't want to end up with burned sugar that needed to be scraped off.

So, I decided to bake the second batch starting at a high temperature to get the puff, with the remainder of the baking time at a lower temperature so the dough would cook without burning the sugar. I opted for turning the heat down to 325 degrees, which meant a longer baking time, and a golden-brown rather than a brown exterior. The sugar was caramelized on the bottom (and stuck to the baking sheet) with a golden brown color and no hint of burning.

In retrospect, it might have made more sense to put a silicone baking mat in the bottom of my baking sheet. That way, the melted sugar that formed a sheet could have been peeled off and snacked upon. Despite the fact that the sugar was fiercely stuck to my baking sheet, cleanup wasn't terrible, though. After a little soak, the sugar melted right off the baking sheet.

Kouign Amann

For the dough:
1 cup lukewarm water
2 1/4 teaspoons Red Star* active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
3 to 3 1/4 cups (14 5/8 ounces) Bob's Red Mill all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
For the butter layer:
8 ounces butter (salted or unsalted; your choice)
For the sugar filling:
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Plus more sugar for dusting:
Figure about 1/2 cup additional sugar
A little extra butter (because you can)

Combine all of the dough ingredients (starting with 3 cups of flour) in the bowl of your stand mixer and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. The dough should be just a little firm - not soft, loose, or sticky. If you need to, add more flour. I used all of the extra 1/4 cup. You might need more. The dough should still be bouncy and not dense.

If you don't have a stand mixer, you can knead by hand, if you prefer.

When the dough is elastic, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the dough has doubled in size, about an hour.

While the dough is rising, put the butter in a zip-top plastic bag and center it in the bag. If you have two 1/4 pound sticks, place them side-by-side. I used a 1/2 pound block of butter. Use your rolling pin to first pound the butter, then roll it to form a square about 9 inches square. This doesn't need to be exact. Do your best. And it doesn't matter if it's not a straight-sided square. We just want to start with something thinner than a block of butter.

Refrigerate the butter until it's needed. It's very important to keep the butter cold throughout this process.

When the dough has risen, flour your counter top and turn out the dough. Form it into a rough square, then use your rolling pin roll it to a 12-inch square. Get the butter from the refrigerator and peel off the plastic. Place the butter on the dough square so the points of the butter square are pointing towards the sides of the dough square.

Like this:

It doesn't matter if everything isn't perfectly square and even. Fold the dough flaps on top of the butter to enclose it completely.

Use the rolling pin to roll the dough to approximately 12x16 inches. It's fine if it's not exact. The only time this dimension is actually important is the final roll before cutting. I'll warn you.

Keep your work surface floured as much as you need to so the dough doesn't stick to the counter or rolling pin, and if you see any bits of butter poking through the dough, sprinkle some flour on the butter to cover it.

Fold the dough in thirds, like a letter. (Do people fold letters any more? Okay, like a tri-fold wallet, then.)

If the butter felt soft and the dough was sliding on top of it during the rolling, STOP and put the dough on a baking sheet, cover it, and put it in the fridge to firm up, about 30 minutes. If the butter didn't feel squishy or slippery, make one more roll and fold exactly the same way, then put it on a baking sheet, cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. You can leave it longer. An hour is fine. Tomorrow wouldn't kill anything, if you happened to have a grocery shopping emergency and you needed to go out for a long while.

But, we want to eat these soon, so try for the 30-60 minute window.

Flour your work surface again. Mix the 1 cup of sugar with the tablespoon of cinnamon and have that standing by. Roll the dough to 12x16 inches as before. With one of the longer sides of the dough facing you, sprinkle about half of the cinnamon-sugar mixture on the right 2/3 of the dough, then use your rolling pin to press the sugar into the dough a bit. You don't need to be exact - this is dough, not brain surgery.

Fold the left, un-sugared flap of dough over the middle third, then flip that over the final third of sugared dough. In theory you could flip the sugared part over the center, but at this point the sugar is a little loose on top of the dough, so it's better to go the other direction.

Again, if the butter felt soft and slippery, refrigerate NOW. Otherwise roll, sugar, and fold as before. Then cover and refrigerate the dough for another 30-60 minutes. If any of the sugar-cinnamon mixture spilled out of the dough, just scoop it up and sprinkle it on top of your dough.

First batch - testing the baking options.
Now we need to decide how to form the kouign amann. On my first try, I used 4 English muffin rings, 4
smaller rings that I had made by cutting the top and bottom out of bamboo shoot cans, and 4 jumbo silicone muffin cups.

Pastry rings are apparently traditional, and provide a crunchy bottom crust. If you use silicone muffin cups (or some people use a jumbo muffin pan), you'll have a sticky caramel-like bottom, sort of like what you'd get from sticky buns.

I did like the sticky-bun bottoms when the KA (kind of tired of typing that name) were warm, but they were a little goopy to store and the sugar was more chewy than crunchy. I liked the ones baked in the rings better. But I wouldn't turn down either one.

So, on batch #2, I made 6 in the muffin rings, and 6 in the shoot can rings. Place your rings on a baking sheet. (Here's a suggestion that I didn't try yet: use a silicon baking mat in the bottom of the pan for easier cleanup and to let you peel off the crunchy sheets of caramelized sugar that oozes out of the pastry rings.)

Most of the instructions I read suggested buttering the rings, but I sprayed mine with baking spray because that's a whole heck of a lot easier.

Yeah, I'm making ridiculous pastry that takes two days, but I don't want to butter some pastry rings. Go figure. But then, just because I wanted to, I added a tiny sliver of butter in the center of where each pastry ring was sitting. I mean, why not?

Beep! When the time is up, dust your counter top with sugar and place the dough on top of the sugar. Sprinkle the top of the dough with more sugar. Yes, you're dusting with sugar rather than flour this time around.

Once again, roll the dough to 12x16 inches. This time we're serious about the size. Actually, roll it slightly larger that 12x16 so you can trim all the edges. Sprinkle with more sugar as needed to keep the dough from sticking. And, well, to add more sugar. I used another 1/2 cup, total, by the time it was all done.

Trim the edges of the pastry so you've got a nice even rectangle that's 12x16 inches. Now, cut the pastry lengthwise into three 4-inch strips, and cut the three strips each into four 4-inch squares. You should have a total of twelve 4-inch squares.

Fold the four corners of the first pastry inward and stuff it into your pastry ring, muffin cup, or whatever you're using. Keep going until all the pastry squares are settled into place. If you have any extra sugar on the counter, you can gather that up and sprinkle it on top of the dough in the rings. Cover the whole pan with plastic wrap or slide it into a large plastic bag and refrigerate overnight.

Have a nice little rest, Kouign Amann!

Even the scraps are tasty!
Meanwhile, you have those scraps, don't you? Hehe. I piled mine into 2 silicone baking cups with a dab of butter at the bottom. I let the rise, then baked them at 375 degrees until they were golden and toasty, about 25 minutes.

And then they disappeared.

'scuse me, I seem to have some sugary crumbs on my fingers...

When you're ready to bake the real batch of Kouign Amann, take the dough out of the refrigerator and give it 30 minutes or so to take some of the chill off. An hour is fine, particularly if your house is cool.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap and put the KA in the oven and then lower the temperature to 325 degrees. Bake until they're a lovely golden brown, about 45 minutes. (They'd cook faster at 350, and I think they might be safe from sugar-burning at that temperature, but I haven't tried that yet. Maybe the next batch.)

Remove the pan from the oven and let the pastries cool slightly (just until you can handle them) before moving them to a rack to cool completely. Whatever you do, don't leave them on the pan to cool, or they'll weld themselves to the pan and you'll be very, very unhappy.

These can be served warm or at room temperature. They're best on the day you bake them, but I wouldn't turn one down if it was a day or two old.

*If you're using a brand of active dry yeast other than Red Star, let it dissolve in the water for a few minutes before you add the flour; if you're using Red Star, you can add it all at once and just start mixing.

Thanks to Bob's Red Mill for supplying flour via 37 Cooks.