Starter Baker Sets off the Kouign-amann Trend
The gloriously sugary-salty butter cakes rise to become a quintessential East Bay indulgence.
Brian Wood, Starter Bakery
Kouign-amanns were little known here until Starter Bakery began making them three years ago.
“Someone was making them in Utah. That was it,” says Starter’s owner, Brian Wood.
Starter’s kouign-amann (pronounced kah-WEEN-a-MAHN), is a crunchy-salty-chewy-sweet wonder. Its center is moist, flaky, and croissant-like, sometimes containing a spoonful of hazelnuts, chocolate, or fruit. But the edges crunch with sugar crystals, and in places, the butter and sugar have caramelized to form a chewy crust. The flavor of salted butter permeates.
They’re extremely difficult to make. A former pastry instructor and cookbook author at the San Francisco Baking Institute, Wood set about making them for a magazine article he was writing. His first attempts failed. He even attended a kouign-amann class, at a Paris school founded by legendary pastry chef Pierre Hermé, where, according to Wood, “everything that could go wrong did.” So he set about developing his own recipe.
From the French province of Brittany, kouign-amanns—Celtic for “butter cakes”— contain twice the butter croissants do and are made similarly. A slab of butter is encased in dough and repeatedly rolled out and folded onto itself, with periodic dustings of sugar. Precise resting times in a cold, dry refrigerator are important, because if the sugar liquefies, the result is a gooey mess, instead of fine, alternating layers of butter, sugar, and dough, which is needed for a delicious result.
At Starter, each pastry is made by hand. “It’s important to me that we’re making things that aren’t pumped out by machines but by several people,” says Wood. The bakery uses organic flour and produce from farmers markets.
Starter’s kouign-amanns first appeared three years ago, at Oakland’s now-defunct Pop-Up General Store, an influential artisanal market. Now, the Breton pastries can be found at Oakland’s Oliveto and Highwire Coffee Roasters, Berkeley’s Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar, and other cafes in San Francisco and the North Bay, as well as at local farmers markets. And demand is spreading: This year, Wood plans to move to a larger baking facility. Meanwhile other vendors are catching on to the trend—Williams Sonoma now sells a frozen version online.
Starter Bakery, 1552 Beach St., Oakland, 510-547-6400, www.StarterBakery.com.