The holidays are over. The boys are back to school. It's the first morning that I've been alone since mid-December. I forgot that I had wanted to wash their snow pants before today, until late last night. And packing lunches took more concentration than usual. Somehow the winter re-entry to the regular routine is always rough one, jarring and rocky, and with that deep-inside-felt frenzy of scrambling to keep pace.
Even in September, after that long, lazy stupor of summer, the return to routine is smoother. You ease into it. Maybe it's because with the sunshine and warmth in the evenings, that summer feeling hangs on.
Now, instead of another tour around the neighbourhood before dinner, and twilight lounging on the back deck after, the night comes sudden and shivering — before Sean gets home, and before the table is even laid. The Christmas tree has an appointment with the curb for pickup, and the strings of lights are packed away with all the sparkles.
A friend said yesterday that it is in our nature to hibernate, an instinct we spend these months fighting against, and I think she's right.
But, we've rounded a corner. Now we can check off the start of winter term to the list with the winter solstice and a new calendar year. We marked that last one with particular fanfare, with sleeping in, followed by kougin-amann.
Started the night before, the year before actually, the cakes rose overnight in the fridge. There's a magic in recipes that take care of themselves, as if the shoemaker's elves were sent to ease the arrival of this fresh set of days. One batch satisfied our needs, with enough to spare to pack up for pals who were passing through town on New Year's Day.
I don't think I'm unique in the mixed reaction to the new year. If I'm honest, when I consider the year that passed, I'm not sure where I stand on the subject. It was a lot of things, the year that one of my sons fell in love with swimming and roller coasters, and the other discovered an affinity for building things (his fingers went from chubby-little-guy-glorious to nimble, kid fingers overnight). It is the year my husband and I found out movies that don't make our kids cry might make us cry instead (ahem). It will always be the year I finished my first book. Then one when we ripped out the carpets and we travelled more. It was a year of good news, and beginning, and discoveries. Of dance parties, Qwirkle, and a really excellent summer for tomatoes. Of friends getting engaged, others married, and others having children. Of them opening shows, publishing work, and starting businesses. But was also a year of waiting rooms. And stitches. There were long talks, then longer nights. Goodbyes. And some months when the losses outweighed any gains.
It was a year of choosing and doing; of at times retreating, and others making it through.
Another friend remarked, last spring maybe, as he was experiencing his own stress-filled run, that maybe more and more days are like this because we are getting to be of a certain age. I think he might be right.
And so, I know there's a melancholy for what has passed, along with a nervousness for what is ahead. I imagine the feeling as music box with the key wound too tight, bundled beneath my ribs somewhere.
There's an inherent energy in the coil of the mechanism. That vital potential momentum. That which has us moving forward towards those brighter days.
We're getting almost a full minute more sunlight in with each evening, and starting January 7th, we'll start making some gains in the morning on top of that. (By the way, all that solstice and equinox and sunrise and sunset time stuff is rather fascinating. Never have I thought so much about the angle of the Earth on its axis.)
Fascinating in its own way, and a beacon on the 1st, was the kouign-amann. It is a Breton pastry whose name translates to "butter cake", and the only way I think to give a sense of it is as a croissant crossed with brioche, under the influence of a sugar bun. The dough is laminated, which is to say, stacked upon itself with a cushion of butter in between each layer. On the last fold a generous amount of sugar is incorporated into the pattern, then a final coat is added to each side. A kougin-amann can be baked as a single round, or cut into squares and tucked into ring moulds or muffin tin (tucking the points of the squares to the centre of the round creates that fluted edge and crenelated pattern on top). From the oven, a kougin-amann will emerge bubbling and burnished, and while the impulse is to feast immediately, they require a rest.
After a few minutes, what had been molten butterscotch where the pastry meets the pan cools to encrust the cake, and the fluffy, steaming interior sets into delineated strata. So, upon eating, that sugar outside fractures crunchily, giving way to a tender, delicate centre.
Thus you have the story of how our year started with butter and sugar. But also with cooking and sharing a meal with some of those I love most. While there is an uncertainty in how the year will end, I'm holding on to how we started. That, I'd like to keep going all the way through.
I wish you all golden days ahead. xo
Recipe by Claire Saffitz, as published in Bon Appétit, April 2014. (Mostly written as published, with a few changes to suit this site's formatting.) Making a laminated dough isn't exactly difficult — it's all about rolling and folding — but it does require attention and care. And time. Lots of time, most of which is spent waiting for the dough to chill. What I recommend is start making the dough in the late afternoon. By bedtime, you should be ready to form the kouign-amann. Pop them in the fridge, covered, and then come back in the morning for baking.
FOR THE DOUGH
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) European-style butter (at least 82% fat), melted, slightly cooled, plus more for bowl
- 1 tablespoon (10 g) active dry yeast
- 3 tablespoons (40 g) sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt
- 3 cups (400 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
FOR THE BUTTER BLOCK
- 12 oz. (340 g) chilled unsalted European-style butter (at least 82% fat), cut into pieces
- ½ cup (100 g) sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt
- All-purpose flour, for dusting
- ¾ cup (150 g) sugar, divided
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray or some more melted butter for brushing the tin
Make the dough. Brush a large bowl with butter. Whisk yeast and ¼ cup very warm water (110°–115°) in another large bowl to dissolve. Let stand until yeast starts to foam, about 5 minutes. Add sugar, salt, 3 cups flour, 2 Tbsp. butter, and ¾ cup cold water. Mix until a shaggy dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding flour as needed, until dough is supple, soft, and slightly tacky, about 5 minutes.
Place dough in prepared bowl and turn to coat with butter. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, place in a warm, draft-free spot, and let dough rise until doubled in size, 1–1½ hours. (This process of resting and rising is known as proofing.) Punch down dough and knead lightly a few times inside bowl. Cover again with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until dough is again doubled in size, 45–60 minutes.
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a 6x6” square. Wrap in plastic and chill in freezer until dough is very firm but not frozen, 30–35 minutes. (Heads up: You’ll want it to be about as firm as the chilled butter block.)
Now make the butter block. Beat butter, sugar, and salt with an electric mixer on low speed just until homogeneous and waxy-looking, about 3 minutes. Scrape butter mixture onto a large sheet of parchment. Shape into a 12x6” rectangle ¼” thick.
Neatly wrap up butter, pressing out air. Roll packet gently with a rolling pin to push butter into corners and create an evenly thick rectangle. Chill in refrigerator until firm but pliable, 25–30 minutes.
To assemble the pastries, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface into a 19x7” rectangle (a bit wider and about 50 percent longer than the butter block). Place butter block on upper two-thirds of dough, leaving a thin border along top and sides. Fold dough like a letter: Bring lower third of dough up and over lower half of butter. Then fold exposed upper half of butter and dough over lower half (butter should bend, not break). Press edges of dough to seal, enclosing butter.
Rotate dough package 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle about ⅜” thick.
Fold rectangle into thirds like a letter (same as before), bringing lower third up, then upper third down (this completes the first turn).
Dust dough lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer. (Freezing dough first cuts down on chilling time.)
Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle, about ⅜” thick. Fold into thirds (same way as before), rotate 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right, and roll out again to a 24x8” rectangle.
Sprinkle surface of dough with 2 Tbsp. sugar; fold into thirds. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer.
Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a rectangle slightly larger than 16x12”. Trim to 16x12”. Cut into 12 squares (you’ll want a 4x3 grid). Brush excess flour from dough and surface.
Lightly coat muffin cups with nonstick spray. Sprinkle squares with a total of ¼ cup sugar, dividing evenly, and press gently to adhere. Turn over and repeat with another ¼ cup sugar, pressing gently to adhere. Shake off excess. Lift corners of each square and press into the center. Place each in a muffin cup. Wrap pans with plastic and chill in refrigerator at least 8 hours and up to 12 hours (dough will be puffed with slightly separated layers).
Preheat oven to 375°. Unwrap pans and sprinkle kouign-amann with remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar, dividing evenly. Bake until pastry is golden brown all over and sugar is deeply caramelized, 25–30 minutes (make sure to bake pastries while dough is still cold). Immediately remove from pan and transfer to a wire rack; let cool.
NOTE (FROM TARA):
- As seen in the pictures, I chose to make slightly smaller pastries and used a standard muffin tin. I rolled the dough larger than suggested and then cut it into roughly 3-inch squares, yielding 18. Since my measurement and timing hasn't been tested more than once, I'd advise following the recipe as written rather than my example.
- Placing the pans on parchment-lined baking sheets will catch any butter overflow while baking.