Talk of the Town

Number 21: Starter Bakery's Hazelnut Kouign Amann

Although Ti Kouz has stopped serving krampouz, Bay Area eaters are still struggling to pronounce Breton words thanks to Starter Bakery. Its signature pastry, the kouign amman (queen ah-mahn), is a butter cake from Brittany that, in the hands of American patissiers like Starter's Brian Wood, has become single-serving pastry with flavorful centers. Wood, a former baking instructor who wrote the book on pastry (hyperbole alert: he actually wrote portions of a textbook on pastry) sells his croissants and kouignoù amman (that'd be the plural of kouign) at farmers markets, Bi-Rite, and cafes around the Bay.

The genius of the kouign amman is how much butter Wood secrets in the dough, sprinkling sugar as he folds so that the pastry puffs and separates into dozens of layers as it bakes. But it's no airy, fragile croissant. In the oven, butter and sugar meld and melt together to form grainy, transparent spikes and twists of caramel that cling to the rim, crackling when you bite into them. There's just enough salt in the mix to push the pastry to that liminal state where savory and sweet coexist.

And the genius of Starter's hazelnut-filled kouign amman, the best of his flavored kouignou, is that there's no contrast between the interior and the exterior of the pastry; the flavor of the toasted nuts echo the butter and caramelized sugar as if they were made of the same substance.

A Pastry from Brittany Makes Waves Stateside

Who could pass up something billed as "the fattiest pastry in all of Europe"? That's how the kouign-amann, a specialty of Brittany in France, was described to me when I visited the region this summer.

Kouign-amann (pronounced kween ah-MON and derived from the Breton words for butter and cake) is something like a croissant but with extra layers of salted butter baked between the sheets, and a crispy coating of caramelized sugar. In the United States, this opulent pastry is having a moment among foodies. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Starter Bakery, which opened in January, has drawn a cultlike following for its kouign-amann (plain or filled with local fruit and Tcho chocolate), available at farmers' markets and coffee shops. In Beverly Hills, Calif., the newest branch of Bouchon Bakery offers its take.

The kouign-amann has also landed in New York, at Dominique Ansel, a bakery in SoHo run by Mr. Ansel, a former pastry chef at Daniel. But go early: Mr. Ansel said he had sold out of kouign-amann many mornings since opening in early November.

Best Breakfast Pastry: Kouign Amann at Starter Bakery

We're not sure if kouign amann has become an insider's obsession because the name is impossible to pronounce without coaching (it's pronounced koo-ween a-mahn), impossible to make without holding a degree in advanced pastry, or because it's all but impossible to find. The traditional French morning sweet from Brittany is essentially a puff pastry cake made with the kind of salted butter the region is famous for, dusted with sugar that turns to a light, sticky caramel as it bakes. The result is chewy, salty, sweet, and luscious. Emeryville wholesale patisserie Starter Bakery makes a fine version, thanks to co-owner Brian Wood's years of training at the San Francisco Baking Institute, where he was an instructor specializing in flaky yeast doughs. Until the day Starter opens its own retail bakery, you can score Wood's kouign at Pizzaiolo's morning cafe, at Modern Coffee in downtown Oakland, Peaberry's Coffee and Tea in Rockridge Market Hall, or from the Starter stall at the Sunday Temescal or Wednesday Albany farmers' markets. And remember: If your pronunciation lesson fails you, you can always just point and hold up fingers to indicate how many kouign you want.

Cult Favorite

After two years at the helm of Oakland's Pop-Up General Store, Samin Nosrat announced she is shutting down at the end of the year. "Some people thought we'd keep going forever, but this narrative needed an ending," she said.

Nosrat, sous chef at Eccolo before it closed in August 2009, started the monthly market with Eccolo executive chef Christopher Lee. It was a simple venture, a way for the former colleagues to keep cooking together. At the first pop-up event, in December 2009, they sold 46 cassoulets and over one-hundred pounds of boudin sausage. Nosrat and Lee were the only cooks, and the customers were mostly their buddies.

When Lee left town to pursue projects in New York and London, Nosrat was left minding the store. Held at the Grace Street Catering headquarters in North Oakland, a former streetcar depot, the Pop-Up General Store quickly blew up. Nosrat took on other cooks and food artisans to help diffuse the burden; soon enough, it was a full-on food marketplace.

Over the months, her role evolved from head chef to curator. She culled a talented pool of food purveyors, many of whom would reach high levels of success outside the market. Starter Bakery's impossibly rich cult favorite kouign amann (the Express' Best Breakfast Pastry of 2011) was first sold at the Pop-Up General Store.

Croissant, Dethroned; All Hail Kouign-Amann

Almost every Sunday someone approaches the Starter Bakery stand at the Temescal Farmers' Market, frantically scanning the selection of baked goods for something, something they can't quite identify. Brian Wood knows what it is. His kouign-amann launched Starter into existence about a year ago, and its popularity spread so quickly through the East Bay (where the bakery is headquartered) that people started seeking out the pastry with the name they couldn't pronounce, solely based on the buzz on the street. [For the record, the first word "kouign" is pronounced "queen," and the second part, "amann," is prounced like the capital of Jordan, Amman.]

Now San Franciscans can find the rare treat at several cafes around town, and Wood has had to put a hold on new accounts because his little bakery can't keep up with the demand. So what the heck is kouign-amann, you ask? Let's start by saying your morning croissant is about to get upstaged in the pastry case.

Originally from Brittany, France, kouign-amann is made using a similar method to its more widely known French cousin, the croissant. But, salted butter is used instead of unsalted, an added layer of sugar is folded in with each layer of butter, and the whole creation is baked on a pan that's brushed with butter and sugar. By the time the the three-inch disk grows to its full inch and a half height, its caramelized crispy exterior belies a light, airy middle. Sugar and salt wrestle temptingly for center stage with each bite.

Adding to the intrigue, the perfect kouign-amann is trickier to achieve than the textbook croissant. Wood says the sugar can easily liquefy during the baking process, causing the entire pastry to turn into a pile of goop. After a stint training with world-renowned pastry chefPierre Herme in Paris, Wood was set on figuring out a way to recreate kouign-amann in the Bay Area.

Now you can find a version filled with TCHO chocolate and seasonal fruit-variations at Starter Bakery's farmers market stalls. As of two weeks ago, the original plain version is available daily at Bi-Rite Market. You can also find it at farm:table and Rapha Cycle Clubin the Marina, and at Little Vine in North Beach on the weekends. This Wednesday, kouign-amann will be available on the regular in the Financial District when the brand new location of Coffee Bar opens at 101 Montgomery St. And I'm told former Manresa and Gary Danko pastry chef Belinda Leong is now sending a regular supply of kouign-amann to the pastry case at Four Barrel in the Mission. At this rate, that strange new pastry you can't pronounce could become an everyday delicacy.

New Oakland bakery tackles the kouign amann, a flaky, sweet, and savory French pastry.

Brian Wood remembers when he first tried a kouign amann, after picking up the traditional Breton sweet from a French pastry shop in New York City in 2005. "I was walking down Fifth Avenue, and I just stopped and looked at it, trying to take it apart," says the co-owner of wholesale Starter Bakery, which opened in Oakland in April. "I was amazed. The flavors were so balanced between sweet and soft and savory. It was buttery and flaky like a croissant, but had more of a hard bite to it."

Six years later, the kouign amann (pronounced "queen amahn") is the signature item in Wood and Jamie Hansen's line of breakfast pastries, which are popping up across the East Bay, including at Pizzaiolo in Oakland and Patxi's in Lafayette.

The two owners want to open a retail space and grow the bakery—but not at the expense of their labor-intensive, small-batch approach. "We want to be successful providing the highest-quality pastries," says Wood.

Buttered Up. A Breton pastry dethrones the morning bun

Look out, morning bun: The Bay Area has a new cult-worthy treat.

Starter Bakery's stellar kouign amann is a Breton pastry whose Celtic name means "butter cake." The golden, spherical puck, comprising sugary layers of buttered pastry, is like the love child of a croissant and shortbread. The new bakery is the joint endeavor of software consultant Jamie Hansen and former San Francisco Baking Institute instructor Brian Wood. Wood, who aptly describes the treat as "pastry crack," first became obsessed with kouign amann a few years ago, while enrolled in classes at Pierre Hermé's cooking school in Paris.

Operating out of a former Blue Bottle Coffee roasting facility on the Emeryville-Oakland border, he concocts several pristine takes: one traditional, one with seasonal fruit, and one packed with melted Tcho chocolate.

Wood also makes a full complement of stellar viennoiserie, from ethereal croissants to bittersweet-rich pain au chocolat. He also makes several crusty artisanal breads.

You can find Starter Bakery's kouign amanns in Oakland at Peaberry's Coffee and Tea, Modern Coffee and Café Gabriela, and on the breakfast menu at Pizzaiolo, as well as at the Albany, Grand Lake and Temescal farmers' markets. Starter Bakery also caters.

Falling In Love with Kouign Amann

A few Sundays ago I was waiting in line at Starter Bakery, my new favorite Bay Area bakery that regularly has a booth at my new favorite Bay Area Farmers' Market in Oakland's Temescal district. I was thinking of picking up one of their delicious little quiche for a late breakfast treat when the woman next to me struck up a conversation. I'm here for the Kouign Amann, she said. (The what?) The Kouign Amann. It's the most amazing pastry I've ever tasted. Buttery, caramely, sweet and salty. It's perfect with a cup of strong black coffee. You have to try one. (Oh. Well … OK!)

The Kouign Amann were available plain, chocolate and fruit filled. On my new friend's advice, I chose the plain although plain is the last word that came to my mind when I bit through the crunchy, caramelized sugar coated bottom and the crispy, flakey top and my teeth met in the middle which was yeasty and a little salty and had the texture of a croissant except a little denser and more bread-like, but still layered. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Kouign Amann (pronounced 'KOO-ine ah-MAHN') is a Breton pastry that makes good use of the delicious, world-class salted butter from Brittany. It's this balance of sweet and salty that makes them so special, as well as the textural contrast of the crunchy caramelized sugar on the bottom, the crispy outer crust and the chewy middle. Apparently in France you can buy them cake-sized but so far I've only seen individual ones available here. The reason I agreed to go with the "plain" is that I thought since this was my first taste of Kouign Amann, I should try it in its most unembellished state. I have had a few since and I have to admit that I still haven't graduated to the other flavors. So far, there's no reason to as I am entirely satisfied with my plain Kouign Amann experience.

Last week I brought fellow Kitchn writer Emma Christensen along to the market with me, stopping first at the Blue Bottle booth for that necessary cup of good strong coffee. She was equally love-struck and (lucky us!) has vowed to work on a recipe for The Kitchn. Meanwhile, you can check out David Lebovit's version, which he makes in an 9" round. Or next time you're in the Bay Area, find a cafe or farmers' market that carries Starter Bakery's delicious offerings and try one for yourself. Go early, as they tend to sell out.

Are you familiar with Kouign Amann? Is there a bakery in your area that makes them? Or do you know of a good recipe for Emma to work with?

Starter Bakery in Oakland - Incredible Pastries

I'm not a big pastry person but my husband brought home an assortment of items from the Starter Bakery that he picked up at the Temescal Farmer's Market on Mother's Day. He then brought a few other items home the following weekend. All I could say while I was eating these things (sorry don't know name) was WOW, these are amazing. Absolute perfect amount of flakiness, browning, and sugared crunch. Absolutely perfect.

Ex-S.F. Baking Institute Teacher Rolls Out Perfect Pastries

Further evidence that the Bay Area is deep into a renaissance of pastry brilliance: four-month-old Starter Bakery, which is producing amazing scones, Provencal Breton kouign amann, and the finest croissants SFoodie has had the pleasure to tear into. Seriously.

Hansen and Wood have been selling breakfast pastries to Pizzaiolo and Modern Coffee in Oakland, and to Barefoot Coffee in the South Bay. Tomorrow, they begin selling direct at the startupAlbany farmers' market; in a few weeks, they'll set up a table at the Sunday Temescal market. In other words, Starter's thoroughly immersed in the East Bay, though baker Brian Wood was for years an instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute, writing the enriched dough chapter and all of the pastry section for the 2008 textbook Advanced Bread and Pastry.

Wood's croissants are marvels of structure, dozens of delicate-walled air chambers that breathe butter, inside an exoskeleton of a crust that shatters at thumb pressure. Hard-to-find kouign amann ("kween am-ON") are denser, tight layers of dough enriched with salted butter, that seem bound together with sugar that bakes to a thin, crackly caramel. And the ginger scones are so tender you wonder how they hold together.

Part of Wood's secret (besides years of finely honed technique, gleaned partly from Seattle super-patissier William Leaman) is his equipment, including an Italian-made diving-arm mixer. It looks like two robotic arms with cupped hands, capable of mixing doughs more gently than a standard paddle or hook mixer. Wood scored a used one from a Vegas hotel. "I looked long and hard," says Wood, who describes his approach as process-driven. He and Hansen ― a software geek who hasn't entirely given up her day job ― have been trying to ease Starter into business deliberately, at the pace of toddler steps.

"If we put out stuff that we don't want to eat, there's no point," Wood says.