The Queen of Kouign Amann
“I love ingredients that give texture,” Leong once told bake. “Feuilletine, raw sugar, puffed grains, nuts. I bake and create with all my feeling. Baking is up and down due to many factors, so when there are many varying factors, my dough changes or my baking can change. Therefore I always bake everything with feeling and make changes along the way every day.”
Years of hard work have paid off now with great recognition. Leong and Michel Suas were announced on May 7 as the 2018 recipients of the coveted James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Baker award. They were among many winners announced at the gala in Chicago. The duo is a multiple-time nominee for the award.
Leong began her career as a pastry chef at Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco in 1999. After eight successful years, she left the restaurant for Europe to stage at some of the most esteemed restaurants and patisseries in Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen. After two years in Europe, she returned to the Bay Area and became pastry chef at Manresa Restaurant, a three-Michelin star restaurant in Los Gatos, before opening b. patisserie with Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute.
In San Francisco, b. patisserie showcases the combination of Leong’s extreme talent with Suas’ vast knowledge and expertise. The bakery is regarded as a star on the culinary scene in the United States.
In 2005, Leong’s constant quest for knowledge led her to the San Francisco Baking Institute where she took a class and briefly met Suas. Years later they would meet again when Leong came back from Europe with the idea of opening b. patisserie. She sought advice and direction from Suas. In 2011, with hopes for b. patisserie lingering, Leong became the head pastry chef at Manresa. While at Manresa, she decided to introduce her pastries to the public through pop-ups and partnerships with select coffee shops.
The success of her pop-ups encouraged Leong to focus solely on b. patisserie. Leong and Suas kept in close contact and soon decided to become partners. In 2012 a permanent location for b. patisserie was chosen. The bakery has since expanded to include a sister location called B. On The Go, a neighborhood eatery in San Francisco serving slow roasted meats and vegetables on house-made breads.
“I am usually baking all day until the shop closes. We bake Kouign Amann, almond croissants, cookies and cakes all day,” she says.
The menu at b. patisserie features a wide variety of creative pastries, ranging from her Vanilla Cassis Cake (vanilla mascarpone, sable breton, cassis ganache, chiffon cake and vanilla glacage) to the Yuzu Lemon Tart (yuzu custard, lemon cream and lemon confit).
What she enjoys perhaps most of all is seeing people come into her bakery and leave happy because they really enjoyed the pastries. “I also love seeing all the regulars that come in to see us, every day and every weekend. It is the best feeling to have when people really enjoy your pastries after all the work we put into it.”
In Kansas City, Ibis Bakery/Messenger Café makes fresh milled kouign amann with local grains.
In Philadelphia, Cake Life Bake Shop mixes up the seasonal ingredients with flavorful variations such as baklava kouign amann (honey and cardamom-spiked nut filling with pistachios and walnuts) or apple kouign amann (with spiced apple compote filling).
In Minneapolis, Spoon and Stable executive pastry chef Diane Yang has built her reputation as one of the city’s dessert masters — and she bakes a fantastic kouign amann.
Yang is also pastry chef at Bellecour, a sister restaurant that has its own fabulous bakery, where they sell kouign amann and a tasty new creation called kouign amann twists. These subtly sweet and crispy twists are made with just eight ingredients: flour, milk, eggs, sugar, salt, yeast, butter and malt.
Accordingly, her dessert menu hits a range of tones, textures, and flavors to be that enduring final impression, with a delicate balance of sweet with sour, savory, bitter, and salty.
“I think simple is good,” she says. “Once in a while, I’ll go all out and do something gorgeous, but I mostly like to stick with the well-executed simple items that comfort people and entice them to come back for more.”
At Spoon and Stable, Yang matches the award-winning chef’s enthusiasm for comfort food from the Heartland, as well as his persistence for wowing guests from first bite to last.
Yang previously worked with Executive Pastry Chef Michelle Gayer at Solera and La Belle Vie, and she had the opportunity to make the role her own in 2008, putting her distinctive stamp on La Belle Vie’s whimsical and delicate desserts. In 2013, Yang received a coveted Charlie Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the Twin Cities.
Before joining Gavin at Spoon and Stable and Bellecour, Yang also consulted with several of the Twin Cities’ other top chefs and restaurants, developing dessert menus for 112 Eatery and Bar La Grass.
The history of kouign amann
Kouign amann is a speciality of the town of Douarnenez in Finis-tère, Brittany, where it originated around 1860. The invention is attributed to Yves-René Scordia. The strict recipe of Douarnenez requires a ratio of 40 percent dough, 30 percent butter, and 30 percent sugar. It contains layers of butter and sugar folded into a yeast dough.
In France kouign amann is often served with fillings of fresh fruit, chocolate, or even coconut. The filling is nestled within the layers of flaky dough. The quality of the butter is extremely important when making kouign amann because the butter will impart a great deal of flavor into the pastry.
Kouign amann is made using a similar method to its more widely known French croissant. 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. The 3-inch dough piece will rise to a full inch and a half height during baking.