The Search for a Perfected Recipe
The single largest part of my job is content creation. Long and unrelenting hours taken up with writing, creating, cooking, re-cooking, developing and testing and re-testing recipes.
It’s the key part of the promise I make to my readers and viewers. If you try one of my recipes, I promise you that it will work.
And not just work well, it has to work really, really well. I want the recipes I offer to be more than just food, they should be a culinary adventure where the destination is just as remarkable as the journey.
Writing recipes is a complex business.
One of my all time favourite dishes is a little-known pastry (in Australia at least). It’s called Kouign-Amann and it comes from the remote western tip of Brittany in France. If you’re a Francophile you’ll probably twig to the fact that the name doesn’t sound French. Well, It’s not. You have to remember that the Bretons are a culturally distinct people, and even today they maintain separate language, customs, food and identity. Think of it kind of like England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Together they are the United Kingdom, yet each has its distinct personality.
Over the last decade or so, Kouign-Amann has had something of a renaissance amongst the hip patisseries of Paris – a rediscovered treasure is always so much more culturally delightful than contrived modernity, particularly when it echoes the things you already love.
For this dish is elementary in its simplicity, yet disarming difficult to actually deliver. Made from flour, butter, sugar, yeast, water and salt, its hallmarks are no different that the croissants and Danish so popular in bakeries the world over. And its layering is reminiscent of all the flaky goodness that puff has to offer.
And yet…and yet………..
Kouign-Amann is unique. For all the similarities, there’s nothing quite like it.
Light and slightly flaky, it’s also distinctly caramel and chewy. It’s rich with butter, yet nuanced with salt. It’s delicate, yet deceptively heavy. It is, in my opinion, the apex of what classic bakery aspires to be.
I hadn’t made Kouign-Amann for a bunch of years, but I recalled it with tenderness. So it was, I decided, time for a redux.
I printed out my old recipe and set to work the other day. Mixing and kneading, folding and layering, proofing and baking.
Bloody disappointment. It was more like a sweet yeast cake, with none of the virtues for which Kouign-Amann is revered.
When recipe testing needs to be done, it’s usually a four-part process for me.
I start by conceiving the outcome I would like to achieve, and this means defining it in terms of flavour, texture, colour, shape and size. Any one of these elements can change or distort what comes out of the oven.
Next it’s time for research, a process that involves several strategies. I start with my own notes, if available, then take a look at what other bakers have offered in terms of strategy. This must always be coupled with a scientific analysis of the recipe, as there are many problems you can pre-empt if you just know where to look. For example, having a butter inclusion more than 60% of the dough weight will almost always result in some layer collapse. Adding sugar to the base dough itself will cause browning earlier and deeper which will reduce the baking time possible, meaning that you won’t achieve as good caramelisation in the crust. Planning for sufficient chill time is vital to ensure that the dough and butter will be at comparable texture when rolling – this ensures that even layers are developed.
The third step is to scratch our a basic formula, then cook and make changes as you go. If you have some experience, your instincts will become your very best tool. Watching the dough come together you may conclude that the water ratio is too high, or that the steeping period for the yeast needs to be increased. Make those changes as you go, noting them down. My own notes are nothing more than scrawl on a sheet of A4, but hey, it works for me.
The final step is assessment, and this is possibly the trickiest. We grow attached to the things we craft. We all do regardless of the field in which we work. As such, casting a truly critical eye over your own work can be a big ask. I’ve grown good at it, but only after two decades. In the end, I learnt that the mistakes I make are the single most important key to getting it right in the long run, and reducing the error rate. I had to come to accept this truth if I was ever going to be good at what I do.
So, this Kouign-Amann? Well, it’s extremely good, but not yet perfect, so no, I won’t share the recipe just yet. But don’t worry, I’ll keep at it. Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be sure to let you know exactly how to master it yourself.