Kouign-amann: The best thing at the farmers market

At the Downtown Farmers Market, you’ll find these pastries at Uncle Wendell’s booth near Second and Court. (Photo: Uncle Wendell’s)

By Michael Morain

It’s time. The Downtown Farmers Market reopens at 7 a.m. Saturday along Court Avenue. If you live anywhere in Central Iowa, you already know that. You also know where to find the list of 300-some vendors. Maybe you’ve already heard about this year’s new offerings, including Asian waffles (from Little Birdee), carrot-based pasta (Humbl Roots) and consumable hemp goodies (HW Premium CBD).

But even if you’re a die-hard market fan, even if you’ve shopped every season back to 1976, have you tried its very best thing? I’m going to let you in on the secret for two reasons: 1) You’re a devoted dsmWeekly reader, and 2) I’ll be there bright and early, before they sell out.

In one hyphenated word: kouign-amann. It’s a small, hockey-puck-sized pastry at Uncle Wendell’s, near the corner of Second Street and Court Avenue. It’s easy to miss between the lemon tarts and mammoth cinnamon rolls, but it’s worth seeking out.

The pastry originated in Brittany, in the northwest part of France where they do magical things with butter and mysterious things with consonants and vowels. Its name comes from the Breton words for cake (kouign) and butter (amann) and is pronounced “queen a-mahn.” Food historians attribute it to the pastry chef Yves-René Scordia sometime around 1860 when he found his pantry stocked with butter but short on flour. So he rolled out a laminated dough like a croissant, padded each layer with butter and sugar and then rolled the whole thing into a tight spiral. He cut the log into discs, like cinnamon rolls, and nestled them into a pan to bake.

The result is a golden-brown miracle. In the oven, the sugary butter oozes out from the layers in some sort of caramelized alchemy that makes the center tender-flaky and the outside crispy-crunchy.

“It’s like a puff pastry, but it’s a yeast-raised dough,” “Uncle” Wendell Garretson told me over the phone from his nonretail bakery in Madison County. He tosses in some sourdough starter to give the flavor more depth. “And, yeah: There’s a lot of butter.”

He started prepping 3 pounds of butter on Tuesday and will start folding it into 7 pounds of dough this afternoon or evening. Over the next few days, the dough will rise and rest and chill. Garretson himself will rest (a little) and rise early to tuck the trays into the oven around 2 a.m. Saturday.

When I discovered the rare kouign-amann at the farmers market a few years ago, it tasted so good I almost had to sit down right in the street. I started urging anyone within earshot to try it, like a sudden religious convert or a self-appointed carnival barker. I texted a friend of mine from Brittany, who encouraged me to take an extra one home and microwave it for precisely 12 seconds. So I did. And he was right.

Amen and amann.

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