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Talking pastry with the Bay Area’s king of kouign amann

Talking pastry with the Bay Area’s king of kouign amann

Bay Area residents who have developed a fondness for kouign amann (truth be told, it’s a dangerous obsession, right?) know that we haven’t always had this crisp, caramelly version of a French croissant in our lives.

It took a cultural anthropologist from Rhode Island, by way of Washington state, to introduce us to the “butter cake” from France’s Brittany region.

Coconut cream kouign amann are among the Starter Bakery special pastries. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

That would be Brian Wood, the founder of the East Bay’s Starter Bakery, who has been hailed as a pastry pioneer. He debuted his first kouign amann at a pop-up in 2010. “We sold 350 in two hours, but it was exhausting,” he said. “I needed to explain to people what they were.”

For our French-focused Eat Drink Play for the Paris Olympics, we talked with Wood about his culinary journey from pop-up to wholesale and retail operations. What’s next for this king of kouign amann? He isn’t ready to divulge his expansion plans yet, but they are likely to make a lot of East Bay residents very happy.

Culinary director Jill Thomas uses a torch to brown a S’mores kouign amann at Starter Bakery. Owner Brian Wood said these pastries, with their chocolate, graham and Italian meringue, have been a customer favorite. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Q How many times do you figure you’ve had to pronounce kouign amann? 

A Many thousands! I usually say, “Like Queen of England and Amman, Jordan.”

Q Do you remember the first kouign amann you ate?

A Yes, I had been teaching at the San Francisco Baking Institute for a few years and would hear of the pastry occasionally, that it was really challenging to make. I tasted one in 2006 at Fauchon in New York City. I was just blown away by the flavor.

Q And how did you start baking these pastries? Was it indeed challenging?

A I received a call from the editor of “Modern Baking” wanting to know if I would write three articles for 2009. I did and committed one to be on kouign amann, figuring I’d have to learn it. I researched all of the reference formulas I could (not finding more than several … and, all in French) and then did some conversions for U.S. flour and then dove into the process. I tweaked my starting formula a few times and figured out how to process the dough without turning into a goopy mess of melted sugar. I still use the same formula to this day.

Q How does a kouign amann differ from a croissant? 

A It’s like a croissant, but it’s traditionally made with salted butter and layered with sugar and baked in a pan that’s lined with butter and sugar. The lining of the pan gives it such a unique caramelly crust. The amount of butter influences the texture, which influences the taste.

Q What makes for a great kouign amann?

A There should be salty elements, sweet elements, caramelly elements, buttery elements.

Q Talk about the creativity of filled kouign amann.

A The seasonal ones are so much fun with the amazing produce we have in the Bay Area. We’ve made filled KA ever since our first pop-up in 2010. The retail store has allowed us to evolve on that with added toppings and garnishes. The team is really excited about seasonality and pairing flavors and textures with the pastry. We use different house-made fillings like frangipanes, ganaches, caramelized nuts and seasonal fruits like Blossom Bluff Orchards peaches, berries, pears.

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Q Your Berkeley wholesale facility bakes seven days a week for shipments throughout Northern California. Where can our readers buy those kouign amann? 

A We bake about 1,200 to 1,500 a day for wholesale customers, of which we have about 325.

We deliver to Philz Coffee locations from Los Gatos to Pleasanton to Petaluma, up to Sacramento. You can also regularly find our kouign amann at States Coffee (Benicia, Martinez, Oakland); Story Coffee (Livermore); Bluestone Lane (San Francisco); Mast Coffee (Sacramento); Java Hut (Fairfax, Petaluma); and from Good Eggs delivery.

The seven farmers markets are San Ramon, Castro Valley, Livermore, Montclair, Temescal, Grand Lake and West Oakland.

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Q And for the creative, filled kouign amann, customers should head to your Rockridge-Oakland bakery. Why did you open a retail shop?

A I always dreamed of having a neighborhood bakery and inviting people in to smell and see what we do and experience really fresh pastry. The retail shop has been a place for me to return to the product and work with the staff on creating new items and / or refining existing ones.

It’s not only about new products. The process of baking is set up with a lot of opportunities for different results, so there is a lot of coaching and teaching along the way to help guide the team toward making the best products they can.

Q You and your team baked an array of new flavors for Kouign Amann Day on June 20. What were the big hits?

A The Lemon Blueberry and the S’mores were crowd favorites. The S’mores was the most involved as it had quite a few components: kouign amann, chocolate, graham, ganache, marshmallow — all garnished with a tiny housemade s’more.

Pastry chef Brian Wood and his team make this seasonal kouign amann with fresh blueberries and a housemade lemon curd, and top it with a white chocolate cream cheese ganache. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Q Do you eat a kouign amann for breakfast every morning?

A No. I start every day with a green smoothie I make at home using kale, avocado, herbs, fennel, yogurt. For lunch, I usually have a salad. That’s because I have to taste a lot of baked goods during the day. It’s an occupational hazard.

Q Is the kouign amann a breakfast pastry? Or an all-day pastry? 

A Definitely all day. It serves well from breakfast to late-night snack.

Details: 5804 College Ave., Oakland, and 901 Gilman St., Berkeley; https://starterbakery.com