When B. Patisserie first opened in Lower Pac Heights nearly a decade ago, not that many San Franciscans could even properly pronounce some of the most enchanting words in French pastry: kouign amann (if anyone’s seriously still confused, just think royalty). But star pastry chef Belinda Leong has since ascended to become the queen of kouign amann, now famed across the land for mastering the formerly obscure Breton-style pastry and winning numerous James Beard awards. Her kouign amanns come in plain, chocolate, pandan, and seasonal varieties, but perhaps one of the most recognized flavors is the black sesame special for Chinese New Year. Kouign amann still reigns as the most popular menu item at B. Patisserie and Leong confirms the black sesame flavor, only available for two weeks, is the most popular by far. Basically, it isn’t a happy new year in San Francisco until black sesame kouign amanns grace the case here.
Leong was born and raised in San Francisco, to Chinese parents who own a sausage factory. She says one of her favorite childhood desserts this time of year is tang yuan, those sweet mochi balls filled with black sesame paste, and she wanted to play with that same flavor and see if it might work within the layers of viennoiserie. Kouign amann starts with a laminated dough that’s similar to croissant or puff pastry, but introduces sugar between the final folds and turns. Cut square and tucked into a round, it’s a humble-looking little cake, but with magical texture — a shatteringly hard crust and butter bomb center.
To inject her favorite Chinese flavor into the French pastry, Leong simply whizzes black sesame seeds with granulated sugar to create a charcoal-colored powder for sprinkling in the final layers. The result is a kouign amann that’s slightly darker in color, but with rich nutty and toasty aroma and flavor, baked right into the crust. If you’re lucky enough to sink your tiger claws into one that’s still warm, sometimes there’s an inky pool of molten black sesame syrup lurking at the center of the pastry, hidden inside the tightly furled folds. And kouign amann will wait for no man, woman, or cub — for the most transcendent texture, rip in right away.
Before the pandemic, B. Patisserie didn’t take advance orders for Chinese New Year, so pastry obsessives would plot a strategy. A line formed before the bakery opened every day, and the black sesame kouign amanns would invariably sell out. But at least the holiday runs for a couple of weeks, so it was possible to slide in on a weekday; even if you accidentally slept in the first weekend, there was no need to despair, you could still try the second. Due to the pandemic, B. Patisserie has introduced online orders, but Leong warns they didn’t go perfectly last year and begs for patience. Even if you order a box ahead, there might still be some waiting around on the sidewalk.
The bakery is racing to prep 10,000 black sesame kouign amanns this year. “It’s like Christmas every day for two weeks,” Leong says. “We work seven days a week, 15 hours a day, just to try to keep up.” She shuts down custom cake orders for the month to clear the decks. She balances the convenience of online orders with not wanting to disappoint walk-ins. And with such beautiful, delicate cakes, tarts, and meringues, it’s a challenge to package those quickly and at volume, particularly with so many special requests for the holiday. “We have a huge Asian clientele base,” Leong proudly estimates. “I would say 60 percent of our clients are Asian, because our pastries aren’t that sweet. I myself don’t eat that many sweets.” Let it be known that Leong actually prefers a plain kouign amann, croissant, or baguette — the chef does not belong to her own cult of black sesame.
But back to the challenges: “Everybody wants them all separately packaged. In Chinese culture people love to give food. People want one pastry in this box, two pastries in that box,” and so on.
But Leong, perhaps like all of us, also secretly delights in the black sesame kouign amann hype. “I kind of love it,” she admits. The real reason she only makes them for a limited two weeks is because she wants to be able to rotate seasonal flavors, so black sesame never dominates the pastry case. But now it feels like a special event: May this new year bring you good luck, prosperity, and black sesame kouign amann.