Monday, July 12, 2010

Sablés: The Simplest of Butter Cookies

When I was a kid, my grandparents' house was always full of treats that got me really excited: granola bars with chocolate chips, baloney, white bread - things my healthful and economical parents wouldn't buy. Among these goodies was a constant tin of Danish butter cookies whose layers seemed everlasting, and whose crunchy sugar-coated outsides were irresistible. I rarely come upon these tins any more, but I still remember enjoying the somewhat artificial buttery flavor.

These sablés bring to mind the Dutch butter cookies - but with REAL, fresh butter flavor. Coated in raw sugar crystals, they are reminiscent of the crunch of the butter cookies. They are simple and "classy" (as a classmate of mine said), not too sweet. And as Clotilde on Chocolate & Zucchini says, they get baked at a relatively low temperature so that they bake slowly and evenly, avoid browning, and caramelize the sugar on the edges.

They have an amazingly simple list of ingredients and procedure of formation, simple enough that you will want to go to your kitchen right now to throw some dough together just to keep in the freezer as a just-in-case dessert. Of course, I recommend that you make them as soon as they're chilled, because these cookies will remind you that you want to eat butter more often, and in the form of these sablés whenever possible.

You form logs of dough and chill them, which is intended to produce uniform cookies - but I always end up with a good amount that have flat edges as I cut through them. I've found that I need to combine the technique of rotating the log as I cut the slices and occasionally re-rolling the log to even out the sides. Not that there's anything wrong with square cookies!

Simple Sablés
from Yves Camdeborde's Sablés on Chocolate & Zucchini

- 200 grams (7 ounces, or 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons) good-quality unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 90 grams (scant 1/2 cup) sugar
- a good pinch salt
- 1 or 2 vanilla beans, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 250 grams (8 3/4 ounces, about 2 cups) flour
- 1 egg yolk or 3 tablespoons milk for brushing
- coarse sugar for coating

Makes about 50 bite-size cookies.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat the butter with a spatula until creamy. Add the sugar and salt and mix them in thoroughly (I'm stuck without an electric mixer right now and it worked to mix by hand, but the room temp butter was essential).

Add the vanilla extract, or split the vanilla bean(s) down its (their) length and collect the seeds by scraping the insides of the bean with the dull side of a knife. Stir the seeds into the mixture (Save the empty pods for another use -- to make vanilla sugar or vanilla extract, to infuse in milk, etc.).

Add the flour and rub it into the butter mixture with the tips of your fingers until incorporated (this helps to avoid melting the butter with a mixer and keeps it flaky, although using a mixer will still work).

Gather the dough into a ball without kneading. Divide into 4 pieces and roll each piece into a log, about 3 cm (1 1/4 inches) in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap or parchment paper, and place in the fridge to firm up for at least 1 hour. (Alternatively, you can freeze all or part of the logs to bake later; thaw partially at room temperature for about 1 hour before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.)

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F) and line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or a sheet of parchment paper.

Remove the logs from the fridge. Beat the egg yolk, if using, with a few drops of water to thin it out. Working with each log in turn, use a pastry brush to coat the log with egg yolk or milk on all sides, then sprinkle with coarse sugar until coated all over.

Use a sharp knife to slice the logs into rounds, about 1 cm (1/3 inch) in thickness. Arrange the slices on the prepared baking sheet, leaving just a little space around the sablés -- they won't expand much.

Bake for 30 minutes, until the dough is set in the center -- the cookies will barely color -- and the sugar is lightly caramelized on the sides. Let rest on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

The sablés will keep for about a week in an airtight container at room temperature.

*These photos may remind you of this salted lemon butter cookie recipe that I shared last year, which were glazed and nicely lemony. It's a great variation on this kind of cookie, but you always want to have the basic version around for the times when you only have basic ingredients - or when you just want a straight butter cookie.
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