There are a lot of myths out there about the kouign amann, a sweet and salty French viennoiserie noted for its shatteringly crisp bite. No, it’s not a morning bun under a different name, nor is it merely croissant dough crammed and baked in a muffin tin. And, perish the thought, it is most certainly not an Instagram-boosted hybrid pastry, a la the “cronut.” The kouign amann (pronounced kween ah-MON, which means “butter cake” in Breton, a Celtic language spoken in France’s Brittany region) stands on its own.
Over the last decade, the buttery pastry has gained wider popularity in the United States, thanks, in part, to patissiers like New York’s Dominique Ansel, San Francisco’s Belinda Leong and Berkeley’s Brian Wood. The circular sweet, with its four tiny horns of folded dough, comes packed with layers of salted butter baked between sheets of laminated yeasted dough, a crunchy coating of caramelized sugar and a moist center occasionally filled with chocolate or jam. If you haven’t had one yet, or haven’t had one this week, you’re in luck: There are several spots across the East Bay at which you can find an excellent version of the beloved treat.
More than one Nosh reader insists that Brian Wood’s Starter Bakery boasts one of the best kouign amanns around. Wood first launched his version of the classic at Samin Nosrat and Christopher Lee’s now-defunct General Pop-Up Store in 2010. “It was an exhausting event because no one really knew what it was,” he said. Wood, a longtime pastry chef who also writes about baking and pastry, told Nosh that he taught himself how to perfect kouign amann creation after being assigned to an article about them for Modern Baking magazine. Through trial and error, he learned how to make a traditional version that comes to life with a rich, dense chew (his secret is salted butter and a delirious 50-50 ratio of butter to dough). The result of his meticulousness? Tens across the board. His kouign amann formula, unlike the too light and too pillowy version found today at lesser bakeries, is the blueprint for authentically recreating the Brittany-based treat. At Starter you can find them in many varieties, including traditional (i.e., no filling, which we strongly urge for first-timers); bittersweet chocolate; or blackberry, raspberry and blueberry. (You can also find them available for purchase at area cafes like Souvenir Coffee or Signal Coffee Roasters.) Starter Bakery goods are available at six East Bay farmers markets, or can be ordered online for pickup or delivery in Berkeley.
This Alameda doughnut shop opened just weeks before the pandemic hit, but has hung in there with a menu of hand crafted, gourmet treats. Kouign amanns are on the Donut Petit menu on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday only, so plan accordingly. In addition to the traditional variety, the bakery offers filled versions with flavors like monte cristo, nutella banana, pistachio or strawberry cheesecake. While visiting the little gourmet doughnut shop, be sure to check out its many titular offerings — the regular glazed or Fruity Pebbles flecked are a delicious exercise in contrast — as well as the shockingly violet ube latte for an added boost to your impending sugar rush. Donut Petit, 711 Santa Clara Ave. (near Webster Street), Alameda
The Oakland-based coffee shop’s five East Bay locations all offer kouign amanns from San Francisco’s Craftsman and Wolves, with flavors that tend to rotate depending on the whims of the Mission District-based outfit: this month, you can look forward to a traditional kouign amann or a strawberry jam version topped with a tiny chamomile macron. Why all pastries aren’t legally required to come crowned with a miniature version of another pastry is simply beyond reason. Highwire Coffee has six locations: Rockridge Market Hall, 5655 College Ave. (at Ocean View Drive) Oakland; 2049 San Pablo Ave. (at University Avenue), Berkeley; Flowerland, 1330 Solano Ave. (at Pomona Avenue), Albany; Montclair Village, 2059 Mountain Blvd (at La Salle Avenue), Oakland; 1234 Park St. (at San Jose Avenue), Alameda; 4059 Emery St. (at 40th Street), Emeryville
This Albany pastry shop’s homemade kouign amanns are available Thursday through Sunday, but you’ll want to get there early as they often sell out in a flash. After all, according to some fans, Rotha’s are as good, if not better, than B Patisserie’s highly lauded ones across the bridge. Fighting words! Judge for yourself. Pâtisserie Rotha, 1051 San Pablo Ave. (near Dartmouth Street), Albany
Paris-born Julien Wagner’s Castro Valley bakery offers only one kouign amann, a traditional version, but what it lacks in variety it more than makes up for in elegant precision. Made in-house and baked to golden crispy perfection, the pastries are available all week long. Seven Hills, 3295 Castro Valley Blvd (at Wilbeam Avenue), Castro Valley
This farmers market standby turned brick-and-mortar specializes in bagels and breads, but co-founder and former Homestead pastry chef Aimee Wingen also practices the art of viennoiserie. Wingen’s chocolate kouign amann, a dark concoction made with cocoa-tinged laminated dough encasing brownie batter and chocolate nibs, is already the stuff of legend. This week they’ll offer two new flavors: blueberry lemon curd and candied bacon salted caramel. Wingen Bakery, 50 S. Livermore Avenue (at First Street), Livermore
Want to take a crack at making these challenging concoctions yourself? Surely, you’ll fare better than some of the bakers on season five of “The Great British Baking Show.” (Episode seven’s kouign amann technical challenge, which broke the brains of a few contestants, deserves praise for also helping bring the pastry to a wider audience.) If you’re up for the task, Claire Saffitz’s recipe for Bon Appetit is a perfect place to start.