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Contemplating the New York Kouign-Amann

Eater's critic samples various iterations of this delectable pastry around New York City

The stubby, sugary, salty, caramelized, croissant-like knob of laminated dough known as the kouign-amann (pronounced: KWEEN ah-MAHN) is not exactly a Cronut (pronounced: cha-CHING!), a fact that Cronut inventor Dominique Ansel himself more or less admitted in his eponymous cookbook. Sometime around the year 0002 B.C. (two years Before Cronut, or 2011), Ansel told his crew that he wanted to highlight the obscure pastry on his bakery’s debut menu. "From a marketing perspective, the team thought it would be a disaster," Ansel wrote. But so the story goes that he started baking them. They sold out quickly. They sold out often. And within no time at all, millions of people of myriad faiths and political persuasions across the world would recognize Ansel for, um, well, for something else.

Like I said, the kouign-amann is most definitely not a Cronut. Its Breton name, to speakers of most extant languages and vernaculars, does not indicate precisely what it is. You look at a Cronut, and visually, you know that you're dealing with — a mashup of two very distinct and recognizable baked goods. You look at a kouign-amann and you know you’re looking at a pastry that kind of resembles a nuclear mushroom cloud or a petrified muffin made thousands of years ago by a creature without opposable thumbs.

So as delicious as Ansel’s own version of the kouign is — its many nooks and crannies and textural incongruities make it a heck of a lot more interesting than the Cronut — it’s no wonder the pastry hasn’t been appropriated by Pret a Manger, Tim Hortons, or your local bodega, not even after Food & Wine named it pastry of the year in 2012 (some honors are not as great as others).

It’s tempting look upon this scenario favorably; anyone who’s tried the faux-Cronut at Dunkin Donuts would seriously wonder what the fuss is about over the real thing (it’s not very good). But on the other hand, a trickle-down pastry can serve as an important jumping off point. Many of us first fell in love with the idea of a croissant via the masterpiece that is a Pillsbury Crescent Roll. Heck, I’ll even admit that I had my first madeleines at Starbucks in my mid-20s and I thought they were fantastic.

But never mind chains. You won’t even find a kouign at Balthazar, Lafayette, Amy’s Bread, Epicerie Boulud, Maison Kayser, or oodles of other high-profile patisseries. If Bordeaux’s chewy, custardy, gumdrop-shaped canele feels poised for the U.S. mainstream, the kouign from Brittany is still firmly an indie band of the pastry world.

For a proper look at the modern history of the kouign, my good colleague Whitney Filloon, published a fine analysis earlier this year. But today, let me give you a more Sutton-esque overview of the pastry, which I’ll argue has three distinct parts: The crown (the craggy, sugar-coated cap), the stump (the part that looks like the short, amputated base of a muffin), and the callus (the chewy, sometimes hyper-caramelized bottom). With this framework in mind, allow me to discuss five notable kouign amanns in New York. I’m not necessarily in love with all of them, but they do show off how this pastry can vary from venue to venue.

Clockwise from the top left: Bouchon, Pain D'Avignon, Bisou Bakery, Dominique Ansel Bakery

Dominique Ansel Bakery: The DKA

Ansel uses a cute contraction for his confection – DKA stands for Dominique’s Kouign Amann – likely to save diners the embarrassment of mispronouncing the pastry, but also because he’s tweaked the original recipe, using less butter and sugar. The result is a brilliantly dense exterior from the stump to the crown, without the gut-bustingly rich interior of other kouigns. Take a bite, and the mahogany exterior yields to tangy white layers of croissant-like dough. The caramel callous is also quite gossamer; it doesn’t interrupt your mastication with a heftier chew. Beautiful. 189 Spring Street.; (212)-219-2773;

Dominique Ansel Kitchen: The Brown Sugar DKA

The dark-meat version of Ansel’s white-meat DKA (pictured at the top of this post). The brown sugar results in an interior that could pass off as buckwheat in color, and while a purist might argue that the interior layers in this version aren’t as distinct as with the original, I’d argue this kouign has a lighter mouthfeel to it, with a more intense saltiness that counteracts the sweetness. My favorite kouign in the city. 137 Seventh Ave.; (212)-242-5111;

Bisou, Ciao.

I’ll keep this one short and simple: This feels like more of a classic and rustic kouign than its peers. The Bleecker Street bakery produces a pastry with a few more empty pockets that one might expect in the typically tightly-packed interior. And the gooey, buttery middle of the treat is even more gooey, buttery, and sugary than its competitors. It’s too much, and perhaps that’s the point. This is a pastry that nourishes you in the morning and keeps you going until dinner at 10:00 p.m. Consume with coffee to counteract the sweetness. 235 Bleecker St. (212)-675-6366;

Pain D’Avignon

The Essex Street market bakery, during a recent visit, sold a few kouigns that were closer in their restrained sweetness level to a proper croissant, but with the pastry’s signature burnished exterior, and a callus that was winningly chewy. 120 Essex St. (212)-673-4950;

Bouchon Bakery

Leave it to Thomas Keller’s team, institutionally obsessed with perfection, to transform the somewhat amorphous kouign into a well-trimmed, bespoke sports coat of a viennoiserie. The pastry looks like a Roswell-style flying saucer, with a flattened crown and roomy stump sporting the same diameter. The symmetry allows for an interior so shockingly organized one wonders if Keller himself previously admonished the dough after a lackluster review. The bottom callus, which covers the length of the stump, is caramelized hard, almost as if it were a pastry analogue to a candied apple.

Sometimes I call it a "koogie" when I order it so I can see how the Bouchon folks react when I intentionally mispronounce it. "Sir, you mean you’d like a…." I tease of course, because Keller has given us a frighteningly perfect and obscenely delicious kouign. 10 Columbus Circle, 3rd Floor; (212)-823-9366;

Top photo: the kouign-amann from Dominique Ansel Kitchen

Dominique Ansel Kitchen

137 7th Avenue South, New York, NY
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