Sables, rich, tender shortbread cookies, are as popular in France as chocolate chip cookies are in America. And for several good reasons: the pure flavor of butter, the cookie's key player; a paradoxical but paradisical texture -- the cookie is both crumbly and melt-in-your-mouth tender; and it has an anytime rightness that makes it as perfect with a tall glass of milk, a bowl of ice cream or a basket of berries as it is on a petits fours tray in France's grandest restaurants. I learned to make sables in Paris working with some of the city's best patissiers, and this master recipe is based on what they taught me -- the Playing Around variations are my American riffs on their standard.
The dough for sables is shaped into logs and then sprinkled with sugar before it is sliced and baked. During the year, I coat the logs with sparkly white decorating sugar. When the holidays come around, I double the recipe and go mad with color, sprinkling some of the logs with brilliant red sugar, some with green and some with a rainbow mix. Trimmed in color and packed in festive tins, these make terrific Christmas cookies.
If you're new to sables, take a look at the pointers (at left) before you set to work.
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature, plus 1 large egg yolk, for brushing the logs
2 cups all-purpose flour
Decorating (coarse) sugar
Makes about 50 cookies
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until smooth and very creamy. Add the sugars and salt and beat until well blended, about 1 minute. The mixture should be smooth and velvety, not fluffy and airy. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in 2 of the egg yolks, again beating until the mixture is homogenous.
Turn off the mixer. Pour in the flour, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and the counter from flying flour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek -- if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple more times; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough and the dough looks uniformly moist. (If most of the flour is incorporated but you've still got some in the bottom of the bowl, use a rubber spatula to work the rest of the flour into the dough.) The dough will not clean the sides of the bowl, nor will it 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 (rather than smooth) dough. Pinch it, and it will feel a little like Play-Doh.
Scrape the dough out onto a smooth 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 refrigerate them for at least 3 hours, preferably longer. (The dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.)
GETTING READY TO BAKE: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
Remove a log of dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it and place it on a piece of parchment or wax paper. Whisk the remaining egg yolk until it is smooth, and brush some of the yolk all over the sides of the dough -- this is the glue -- then sprinkle the entire surface of the log with decorating sugar.
Trim the ends of the roll if they're ragged, and slice the log into 1/3-inch-thick cookies. (You can make these as thick as 1/2 inch or as thin as -- but no thinner than -- 1/4 inch.) Place the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving an inch of space between them.
Bake one sheet at a time for 17 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet at the midway point. When properly baked, the cookies will be light brown on the bottom, lightly golden around the edges and pale on top; they may feel tender when you touch the top gently, and that's fine. Remove from the oven and let the cookies rest a minute or two before carefully lifting them onto a rack with a wide metal spatula to cool to room temperature.
Repeat with the remaining log of dough, making sure the baking sheets are cool before you bake the second batch.
SERVING: Serve these with anything from lemonade to espresso.
STORING: The cookies will keep in a tin at room temperature for about 5 days. If you do not sprinkle the sables with sugar, they can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months. Because the sugar will melt in the freezer, the decorated cookies are not suitable for freezing.
LEMON SABLES: Working in a small bowl, using your fingers, rub the grated zest of 1 to 1 1/2 lemons (depending on your taste) into the granulated sugar until the sugar is moist and very aromatic, then add this and the confectioners' sugar to the beaten butter. (Sables can also be made with orange or lime zest; vary the amount of zest as you please.)
PECAN SABLES: Reduce the amount of flour to 1 1/2 cups, and add 1/2 cup very finely ground pecans to the mixture after you have added the sugars. (In place of pecans, you can use ground almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts.) If you'd like, instead of sprinkling the dough logs with sugar, sprinkle them with very finely chopped pecans or a mixture of pecans and sugar.
SPICE SABLES: Whisk 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg into the flour.
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