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story.lead_photo.caption Kouign-amann is a rich, dense pastry. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

ST. LOUIS — Are kouigns amann the best pastry ever?

Rose Levy Beranbaum thinks so, and she is perhaps the most respected baking expert in America. Nathaniel Reid, who is one of the most celebrated bakers in St. Louis, is fond of them, too.

"It's one of our most requested items," said Reid, a James Beard Foundation award semifinalist in 2019 and 2020 and owner of Nathaniel Reid Bakery in Kirkwood, Missouri. "There's not anything not to like."

Indeed. Kouigns amann are flaky, buttery, sugary and a little salty — and when you heat butter and sugar together, you get caramel. In short, they're the perfect pastry.

Originally from Brittany, in France, kouigns amann are made from a yeasted, laminated dough. That means they have layers and layers of thin, buttery pastry folded on top of one another. Unlike puff pastry, they have yeast; so the layers rise and take on a more complex flavor. In that respect, they are similar to croissants, Reid said, but they are sweeter.

Like croissants, they are also difficult to make at home. Professional bakers have rolling devices called sheeters — they are like a pasta maker for dough — that can churn out thin, even sheets of pastry. Professional bakers also have the time and the manpower to make them; Reid said his take a full 24 hours, which gives the yeasted dough plenty of time to develop a rich flavor.

In her seminal cookbook "The Baking Bible," Beranbaum writes her first couple of attempts at creating kouigns amann were disasters. Only when she refined her method on her third try did she reach pastry nirvana.

I decided to try her version which — let the baker beware — takes six hours to make (though much of it is spent allowing the dough to rise). But then I also decided to try an intriguing variation that can be finished in just 21/2 hours, also with most of the time spent rising. Instead of individual pastries, this version makes one large laminated, buttery, bread-meets-pie pastry.

It's called Salted Caramel Flaky Pie. The name says it all. And it's easier to pronounce than kouign amann, which is variously said to be ka-WEEN-a-mahn and queen-ya-MAHN.

Either way, in the Breton language it means "butter cake."

Beranbaum has a reputation for being precise. Her theory is that if you follow her instructions to the letter, you will end up with perfect baked goods. I recommend following her instructions to the letter. If she says to roll the dough into an 8-by-8-inch square, roll the dough into an 8-by-8-inch square. The reason will shortly become clear.

If she says to use butter with a high amount of butterfat, then use it (85 percent, if you can find it — the label will say it has 110 calories per serving). It's easier to work with when you are laminating dough — folding it with butter so it develops alternating layers of dough and butter.

And if she says to use bread flour because its higher protein level keeps the butter layers from breaking through the dough, then go ahead and use it if you have it. Frankly, I made it twice; once with bread flour and once with all-purpose flour, and the bread flour version was only marginally better.

And that might have been because it was the second time I made it, and I was getting better at the technique.

Both times, the results were simply magnificent. Lightly caramelized on the bottom, flaky on the top and sides, and soft and sweet in the middle, the kouigns amann were as good as a pastry can get.

Except the other kind I made might have been better.

The Salted Caramel Flaky Pie was a little denser than the traditional kouigns amann, but that only meant that the golden caramel goodness was more concentrated, with more rich flavor per bite.

It was also, as I said, faster and easier to make. Novices probably should not attempt it, but mid-level bakers could certainly give it a whirl. It uses a laminated dough, too, but this version is less of a hassle.

Two taste testers said they liked it better because it had a little more of a caramel taste than the traditional shape. On the other hand, a 10-year-old neighbor who has been around the world said the traditional one was one of the best things he has ever eaten in America. So there's that.

My kouigns amann turned out well — sublimely, actually — and I am more of a cook than a baker. But if yours leak butter or the dough becomes sticky and unworkable, do not despair.

"Just keep trying," Reid said. "Don't be frustrated if it doesn't come out right the first time."

The results are well, well worth it.

KOUIGN AMANN

Yield: 8 servings

3 cups minus 1 1/2 tablespoons (390 g) bread flour

2 teaspoons (6.4 g) instant yeast (not fast-rise)

1 3/4 teaspoons (10.5 g) fine sea salt

1 cup (237 g) water at cool room temperature

2 tablespoons (28 g) butter, melted and cooled

16 tablespoons (2 sticks, 227 g) unsalted butter, preferably high butterfat, at 60 to 70 degrees

1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar, preferably superfine, see notes

Notes: This recipe makes eight pastries. They are large and rich enough to be cut in half for two servings each, but you'll probably want a whole one to yourself.

To make superfine sugar, place sugar in a blender and blend at medium to high speed for 10 seconds.

To make aluminum foil pastry rings, cut eight 14-by-4-inch strips of heavy-duty aluminum foil (the standard aluminum foil roll is 12 inches, so you'll have to roll out 14-inch-long sheets). Mark the foil along its length at 7/8 inch. Fold the foil lengthwise along the markings. Fold the foil lengthwise two more times to form a 14-by-1-inch strip with four layers of foil. Wrap each strip around a 4-inch diameter can, such as a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. Use two small paper clips to secure the overlapping ends to form a ring. Remove the ring from the can and adjust it to be as round as possible.

1. Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer, with a hand whisk, mix together the flour, yeast and then the salt. Add the water and the melted butter. Attach the dough hook and, starting on low speed, mix until the flour mixture is moistened, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Continuing on low speed, beat for 4 minutes. The dough will be silky smooth and have cleaned the sides of the bowl, but it will stick to the bottom and be very soft and slightly sticky to the touch. Cover the bowl and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the butter square.

2. Make the butter square: Place the softened butter on a large sheet of plastic wrap and wrap it loosely. If the butter is cold, pound it lightly with a rolling pin to flatten and soften it. Then knead it together using the plastic wrap and your knuckles to avoid touching the butter directly. Shape the butter into a 5-inch square (it will be about 3/4 inch high). At this point, the butter should be firm but workable, 68-70 degrees. Use it at once or set it in a cool area. The butter should be the same consistency as the dough when they are rolled together or it will break through the dough and not distribute evenly.

3. Make the dough package: Roll out the dough on a well-floured surface to an 8-inch square. Place the butter square diagonally in the center of the dough square. Wrap the butter by stretching the exposed flaps of dough over to reach across the butter square, brushing off excess flour on each flap before stretching the next flap over it. After stretching the fourth flap over the butter, which should wrap it securely in a 5 3/4-inch square dough package, pinch together the seams to seal it well.

4. Make the first turn: On a well-floured work surface, keeping the dough seam-side up and lightly floured, gently roll the dough package into a 13-by-7-inch rectangle. It will be about -inch thick. Roll into the corners and use a bench scraper or a ruler to maintain an even rectangle. If the dough blisters, gently press the blister down. If the butter breaks through, dust the area lightly with a little flour before brushing off all excess flour from the surface of the dough. Fold the dough into thirds as you would fold a business letter. This is the first turn. Wrap the dough package with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour.

5. Make the second turn: Before each turn, move the dough so that the closed end is facing to the left. Repeat the same process of rolling and folding as for the first turn (step No. 4), but every once in a while, flip the dough to keep the seams aligned (the upper part tends to roll more than the bottom). Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for another hour.

6. Make the third turn: Clean the work surface and sprinkle with about half of the sugar in a rectangle the width of the dough. Set the dough on top and sprinkle most of the remaining sugar on top of it. Roll the dough again into a 14-by-8-inch rectangle, flipping it over from time to time. Scrape sugar on top of the dough until all but 2-3 tablespoons of the sugar have been rolled into the dough. With a bench scraper, form the dough into an even rectangle.

7. Prepare the rings and pan: Either use store-bought 4-inch pastry rings (which are expensive and hard to find) or make your own as described above in the notes. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil. Set the pastry rings on the prepared sheet pan and lightly coat the insides and the foil lining on the bottom with nonstick cooking spray.

8. Roll and shape the dough: Set the dough on top of the sugar on the work surface. Roll it from the center to the edges, then as necessary to form a 16-by-8-inch rectangle. It will be about 3/8 inch thick. Cut the dough into eightequal pieces. Each will be about a 4-inch square. The dough will now be somewhat sticky as the sugar becomes syrupy. Roll one of the squares into a 5 1/2- to 6-inch square. Bring up the four corners to the center and press down firmly over the top of the dough. Cup the dough square into the palm of your hand to support it and keep the four corners together. Repeat folding, bringing up the corners to the center a second time. Press it down in the center, dipping your finger in sugar if necessary to keep it from sticking, and push it together as well as possible. Set the dough in a prepared pastry ring on the sheet pan. Repeat with the other dough squares. Each one will open up slightly and take its own shape, which is a part of its charm.

9. Cover the shaped dough loosely with plastic wrap that has been lightly coated with nonstick cooking spray, and let it sit in a warm place, ideally at 75 degrees but no higher than 80 degrees, for 30 minutes or until the dough has risen about 1 1/2 times and most of the dough touches the sides of the rings.

10. Once the dough is shaped, the baking time can be delayed by up to 2 hours by lightly covering the kougins with plastic wrap and refrigerating them. The rising time, once the kougins are removed from the refrigerator, will take about 45 minutes to an hour, but the baking time will be the same and the results comparable (refrigerating the kougins for longer than 2 hours prevents the dough from rising).

11. Preheat the oven: 30 minutes or longer before baking, set an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

12. Bake the kougins: Bake for 12 minutes. Rotate the pan halfway around. Continue baking for 8-15 minutes until the pastries are caramelized and the edges are deeply browned.

13. Cool the kougins: Use tongs to lift off the pastry rings and a pancake turner to lift each kouign onto a wire rack that has been lightly coated with nonstick cooking spray and set over paper towels to catch any leaking butter. If any of the kougins cannot be removed from the rings, return them to the oven for a few minutes to soften the caramel. Let the kougins cool for about 10 minutes. The texture is softest and the kouigns most delicious when eaten just baked and while still warm.

14. Store: Kouigns can be stored in a paper bag at room temperature for 2 days. To reheat, place in a microwave 8-10 seconds or 3-5 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven.

Per serving: 508 calories; 27 g total fat; 17 g saturated fat; 69 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 59 g carbohydrates; 25 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 514 mg sodium; 16 mg calcium

Recipe from "The Baking Bible," by Rose Levy Beranbaum

SALTED CARAMEL FLAKY PIE (KOUIGN AMANN)

Yield: 10 servings

1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

2/3 cup (160ml) lukewarm water

12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks, 170g) unsalted butter, cold

2/3 cup (130g) granulated sugar

1 3/4 cups (230g) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon milk, any kind

1. At least 2 1/2 hours before serving, sprinkle the yeast into the lukewarm water and let sit for 10 minutes until foamy. If it does not get foamy, the yeast is probably too old. Discard and begin again with new yeast.

2. In the meantime, grease a 10-inch cake pan (not springform) with 1 tablespoon of the butter and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the sugar.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt. Form a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon or dough whisk until incorporated. On a clean work surface, knead the dough for 5 minutes, until smooth and springy. Let rest for 5 minutes.

4. In the meantime, put the remaining 11 tablespoons of butter between two sheets of parchment paper and bang with your fist to flatten into a 7-inch round.

5. Flour your work surface lightly and roll out the dough to form an 8-inch round. Put the round of butter on top of the round of dough and pour the remaining 9 tablespoons of sugar over the butter. Fold the bottom third up toward the center, like a letter, and press with the tips of your fingers to seal. Fold the top third down and over, making sure the layer of dough encapsulates the butter and sugar, and press to seal. Fold both sides in to meet in the center, making sure again that the butter and sugar are trapped inside, and press to seal. Put on a plate and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

6. Flour your work surface lightly again. Roll the dough out to form a rectangle about 8-by-12 inches. Fold in three like a letter. Give the dough a quarter turn, roll it out into a rectangle about 5-by-15-inches, and fold in three again, ending with a 5-inch square. Fold the four corners of the square in to meet in the center, flip, and tuck the edges under to shape into a ball. Return to the fridge for 15 minutes.

7. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

8. Flour your work surface lightly again. Roll the dough out into a 10-inch round, and transfer to the prepared pan. Brush with the milk and, using the tip of a sharp knife, score the top in a shallow crisscross pattern. Bake until golden brown, 30-40 minutes. Using a spoon, scoop some of the melted butter that pools on the sides and baste the top.

9. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then lift with a spatula and transfer to a serving plate (if the caramel has already set in the pan, pop the pastry back into the oven for 5 minutes). Serve lightly warm or at room temperature. It tastes best the day it is made; leftovers can be reheated for 5 minutes in a 400-degree oven.

Per serving: 194 calories; 14 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 37 mg cholesterol; no protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; no fiber; 3 mg sodium; 5 mg calcium

Recipe from "Tasting Paris," by Clotilde Dusoulier

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