It has occurred to me recently that an inherent craving for the byzantine helps fuel my love of baking and cooking. Generally the more difficult a recipe, the more piqued my curiosity. I also happen to feel this way about book and television show plots. Yes, I cried like a baby when Lost ended last spring.
There is certain elegance in simplicity and restraint. Think of the black Louboutin pump. A Rothco painting. A tulip. Or, in this post, a sable cookie. Sandy, crumbly, buttery and so subtly sweet that the first bite is almost surprising. This little French sugar cookie is about as perfect as a cookie can get.
When a cookie recipe only has six components, two things become paramount: ingredients and technique. You already know how I feel about ingredients in general: always buy the best you can afford (or, if the misanthrope in you is acting up–like it sometimes does with me–the best you are willing to feed other people). As for technique, thankfully, we have Dorie Greenspan.
In a 2004 article in the New York Times Style Magazine, Greenspan talks about how she first learned to make sables from Parisian bread baker Lionel Poilane. In her lovely description of the lesson, she explains that he made them like he made his bread: no spoons, bowls or mixers. Over time and with the help of Pierre Herme, she refined the recipe that ultimately appeared in Baking, From My Home to Yours (2006). In this recipe, technique is as important as the ingredients.
Sea salt and two types of sugar, confectioner’s and granulated, are added to softened and beaten butter until the mixture is smooth and velvety (not, fluffy as is often the case with cookies). Greenspan also notes that by “softened” she literally means, soft–not greasy and nearly liquid, as I often let my butter become.
Then a couple of egg-yolks are beaten in. The presence of yolks in this recipe surprised me. I had always assumed that sables, like shortbread, don’t contain eggs. In this recipe, they help to bind together a barely-mixed dough.
After this, flour, the final ingredient is added. Greenspan recommends adding the flour, covering the standing mixer with a towel and pulsing until it is just mixed-in. I prefer to start with a couple of turns of the paddle and then finish by hand. Not that I have control issues or anything. The dough doesn’t really come together as a smooth mass. You want soft curd-like (my word, not hers) crumbs.
Then you divide the dough in half and carefully shape each into a log, touching the dough as little as possible. Here is where I make a slight diversion from the original recipe. In the original, you roll the logs, wrap them and chill them in the fridge overnight. Then, before baking, you give the logs a good egg-wash and sprinkle on sanding sugar. I prefer to roll the still-soft logs in sanding sugar first, then chill.
Once chilled, the logs get cut into coins.
Popped onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
And then, into an oven until slightly golden and crisp.
Baking from My House to Yours (2004)
Yields about 50 cookies
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter (preferably high-fat, like Plugra), softened at room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted before measuring
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, preferably sea salt
- 2 large egg yolks, preferably at room temperature
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
For the decoration (optional):
- 1 egg yolk
- Crystal or dazzle sugar
1. Working in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter at medium speed until it is smooth and very creamy. Add the sugars and salt and continue to beat until smooth and velvety, not fluffy and airy, about 1 minute. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in 2 egg yolks, again beating until well blended.
2. Turn off the mixer, pour in the flour, drape a kitchen towel over the mixer and pulse the mixer about 5 times at low speed for 1 or 2 seconds each time. Take a peek; if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of more times; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, stir for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough and the dough looks uniformly moist. If you still have some flour on the bottom of the bowl, stop mixing and use a rubber spatula to work the rest of it into the dough. (The dough will not come together in a ball — and it shouldn’t. You want to work the dough as little as possible. What you’re aiming for is a soft, moist, clumpy dough. When pinched, it should feel a little like Play-Doh.)
3. Scrape the dough onto a work surface, gather it into a ball and divide it in half. Shape each piece into a smooth log about 9 inches long (it’s easiest to work on a piece of plastic wrap and use the plastic to help form the log). Wrap the logs well and chill them for at least 2 hours. The dough may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.
4. When ready to bake, center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and keep it at the ready.
5. To decorate the edges of the sables, whisk the egg yolk until smooth. Place one log of chilled dough on a piece of waxed paper and brush it with yolk (the glue), and then sprinkle the entire surface of the log with sugar. Trim the ends of the roll if they are ragged and slice the log into 1/3-inch-thick cookies.
6. Place the rounds on the baking sheet, leaving an inch of space between each cookie, and bake for 17 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet at the halfway point. When properly baked, the cookies will be light brown on the bottom, lightly golden around the edges and pale on top. Let the cookies rest 1 or 2 minutes before carefully lifting them onto a cooling rack with a wide metal spatula. Repeat with the remaining log of dough. (Make sure the sheet is cool before baking each batch.)