The kouign amann is an unassuming pastry. Many people look at it and ask, "What is this?" Fearing they won't like it, they ask for just a taste, and then, after trying it, quickly request more. The first time I made the pastry, my husband ate six of them. When I made them for a photo shoot (the recipe was published on February 26, 2012) I told my food stylist this story. She laughed, and then proceeded to eat six, too. I baked them for a friend in France and he ate eight.
The kouign amann became famous - sort of - when it was introduced as a notoriously difficult pastry to make on season five of television show The Great British Bake Off. None of the contestants had heard of it. Since that episode aired more bakeries have been selling it (Marks & Spencer is even producing a version, although I've not seen it in the Hong Kong stores), but it's not yet reached the dizzy heights of cupcakes (yawn), macarons and canneles.
Of course, it's much better known in France - I've visited shops in Paris and Biarritz that specialise in the pastry, where they make miniature versions called kouignettes. The kouign amann is particularly well known in Brittany, where it was created, probably as a way to use up an excess of salted butter - the region is known for its salt and dairy products.
Like many other pastries, kouign amann contains butter, flour and sugar, along with a bit of yeast. The difference is in the quantities: for the kouign amann, the butter (which should be salted), flour and sugar are used in almost equal doses, making for a rich, delicious pastry that - surprisingly - is not overly sweet because the sugar caramelises in the oven. The ingredients are made into a laminated dough - separate layers of dough and butter - which forms a flaky baked product. This laminated dough is rolled in a large quantity of sugar before being shaped, topped with more sugar, then baked.