Food writer Carolyn Wyman wrote a feature for Philadelphia City Paper that probed the stories behind some of Philadelphia's most popular dishes. Alas, City Paper ceased publication. We're proud to continue Carolyn's fine work here at philly.com/food.
If you think the butter cake made by Philly-area German bakeries is rich, you should try Metropolitan Bakery's kouign amann. The weird name (pronounced "queen aman") means "butter cake" in the language of the land where this breakfast-pastry-style butter cake originates, the Brittany region of France.
The kouign amann (a.k.a. KA) is like a croissant, with sugar and even more butter, whose layers of dough are folded up like an origami flower, then baked at high heat so that the moist, flaky pastry becomes encased in a caramel candy sheet that sticks to your teeth. A New York Times writer once called it "the fattiest pastry in all of Europe," a description that launches Metropolitan baker James Barrett into hearty laughter.
"It's wonderfully rich and high in butterfat for sure," he says, after catching his breath.
Barrett first encountered the pastry on a 2002 food and art history tour of Brittany and Normandy and "became obsessed" - ordering them whenever he saw them, doing some historical research and experimenting with making it when he returned to Philly.
Three results: Barrett scaled down the large cakes he had tried in France to individual pastries made in muffin tins to up the exterior crispiness, used sponge starter to heighten the butter flavor, and added orange zest to moderate the sweetness. But he didn't begin making kouign amann for Metropolitan customers until almost a decade later, when he revisited the recipe for inclusion in Metropolitan's 20 for 20 anniversary cookbook.
Barrett says the pastry took some time to catch on. "The name is odd" and though the KA gained some national renown as the signature item of Dominique Ansel's bakery in New York in 2011 (before he invented the Cronut), it was then virtually unknown in Philly. It still is, outside of some Metropolitan kouign amann groupies, Barrett still being one of few Philly bakers to regularly make KAs.
In February, High Street on Market pastry chef Sam Kincaid began making a cocoa-flavored riff on a kouign amann, which is now sold at High Street, a.kitchen, and Rival Bros. Coffee Bar. But for most bakeries, it's just too difficult and time-consuming.
Metropolitan's KA dough is folded six times and rests for 36 hours before finicky baking. "Take it out too soon and it'll be overly sweet; too long and the sugar will burn. You've got to get it to that perfect point where it melts and caramelizes," Barrett says.
No wonder he only recommends his KA recipe to "very adventurous home cooks." Even he only makes the pastry on Saturdays for two of his stores. "It's nothing anyone should eat on a daily basis, anyway," he says.