One of the best things about the fall season is mushroom picking. Someone had whispered in my ear they had found three large gorgeous cèpes in their garden last week-end. After hearing this, I never leave home without rubber boots and a basket in the hope to bring back a bounty of my own. Since I moved to Médoc, I have discovered reliable mushroom trails close to my house. Where to go, how to pick them, and more importantly what not to pick. It is so revitalizing to go on daily walks in the woods and meadows, filled with untouched wildlife in every corner. I love the different shades of light you see as you walk along, especially when the sunlight sparkles through the trees and fern, bringing its warmth and wonder to everything it touches. As the kids don’t have school on Wednesdays, it seemed like the ideal time to go on a family mushroom picking excursion. So there we were, along with a our dogs (not all of them, but most), on a champignons quest.
We entered the woods, looking all over for shiny brown buttons. The dogs, as usual, managed to find what their hearts desire. A dead bird, a fox skeleton, a deer’s paw. Non merci! After an hour of searching in vain, we were all a bit disappointed, but it wasn’t a total loss. You know it’s still a good day when your daughter says: ‘Maman, this was a real adventure’! Walking back home, we talked about how the moon and the rain affect the mushroom’s growth. Because the secret of nature is patience.
Back home, the kids were longing for the goûter. It’s the tea-time break that is the most important hour in the life of les enfants. On Wednesdays (in France, most kids until the age of 11 don’t have school on that day), they enjoy a little grown-up style tea and cake moment in the playroom. They sit together and, as they are drinking a vervain tisane, they feel very grown-up and discuss important school issues. ‘Did you like the food at the canteen this week, do you like your new teacher, who is your new best friend?’ Mia had requested the butter, sugar and caramel cake, just like the one Amélie Poulain makes in ‘Amélie’.
This old-fashioned Breton cake is called kouign amann. Brittany is all about warmth, coziness, comfort and butter. It’s a caramelized cake made of the most basic ingredients: butter, flour, sugar and yeast. You will need patience (for the dough rising), and a good hand to fold in the butter and sugar in a few layers. The kids adore this caramelized treat, and I think they also find the unusual name mystical. Old Breton words like kouign (cake) and amann (butter) sound like a language from an enchanted forest. It’s a very rich cake, especially in butter. Vive la France!
Later that night, as I slipped into bed, I heard terrifying sounds in the forest. Our mornings are graced by visiting deers, but at night we hear the wild boars at play. I can hear them from afar, their deep grunting echoing in the forest. They are probably on the same trail as we were earlier, eating all the fresh acorns I saw. Will they come to my house? It’s funny, but two years ago, I would have been horrified and up all night. The new ‘country me‘ thought, ‘I hope they won’t eat my precious cèpes’! (the ones that aren’t there yet… perhaps next week?)
250 g/ 2 cups plain flour
200 g/ 3/4 cup salted butter ‘demi-sel’ (room temperature)
200 g/ 1 cup granulated white sugar + extra for dusting
10 g/ 1 tbsp fresh baker’s yeast
1 good pinch of salt/ fleur de sel
120 ml/ 1/2 cup lukewarm water
In a large bowl, prepare the dough. Dissolve yeast in 3 tbsp lukewarm water and wait till it becomes frothy. Mix flour, salt and add dissolve yeast in center. Gradually add water and start kneading. I do everything by hand, and it usually takes me about 15 minutes of good kneading until I get a soft and supple dough. Shape into a ball, and leave to rise in the bowl covered in a cotton cloth for 3 hours at room temperature.
Preheat oven to 210°C/450F
Step 1: On a floured surface, start rolling the dough to a square shape, about 1 cm thick. Spread 50 g butter, 60 g sugar and fold the dough over the butter/sugar on each side (as if you were wrapping a present in paper – the present being the butter/sugar, the paper being both sides of dough). Fold to form another square.
Step 2: On a floured surface, use a rolling-pin and roll the folded dough into a square shape. Repeat as step one with butter/sugar and folding.
Step 3: Place folded dough in a floured cling film and leave to rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Step 4: On a floured surface, roll out refrigerated dough one last time. Shape in the form of a square. Place 70 g butter and remaining sugar and fold like in step 1.
Step 5: Place in a buttered round cake tin. Gently press the dough with the palm of your hand to fill in the cake tin. Spread remaining butter on top of dough and sprinkle with a 1 tbsp of sugar. Place in oven and bake for 22-25 minutes, depending on oven strength.
Tip: As this cake is all about caramelization, I would advise to start checking every 2-3 minutes towards the end as it is so easy to over-caramelize or even burn. Starting 17 minutes or so, as soon as it looks slightly golden brown, it’s ready. As I have been making this cake for years, I have learnt from my mistakes.
Step 6: Leave to rest on a rack for 15 minutes before transferring to a plate. Use a round-tipped knife to lift/ unmould the cake. Serve warm.
Tip: Should you want to prepare this cake in advance, I would recommend reheating it by bain-marie (steaming).