Sables Bretons: French salted butter cookies
Shortly after I had moved to France, I made dinner for friends in my apartment, which we finished up with a chocolate tart, which I flecked with a few grains of flaky sea salt. Everyone ate their desserts but one guest, politely, finally spoke up to let me know that somehow, I’d gotten some salt on the dessert. Since then, salt has become a popular ingredient in pastries. It adds a bit of contrast to any sweetness, and helps to enhances other flavors, too.
In Brittany, butter is celebrated in a variety of desserts, like kouign amann, that have become globally popular over the last few years, salted butter is used to make them. Unsalted butter used to be the butter of choice for making pastries and desserts. Some said (including myself) that salt is added as a preservative, so unsalted butter is usually fresher. And the other reason was that using unsalted butter allowed you to control the salt in a recipe.
With refrigeration, the freshness of salted and unsalted butter isn’t really a question anymore. And regarding the second point, the amount of salt in a stick (4 ounces, 115g) of butter is about 1/4 teaspoon, which isn’t an enormous amount for an entire recipe and if you use salted butter, you can dial down the salt in a recipe proportionally.
These classic Breton cookies are called sablés, which refers to their sandy (sablé) texture, due to a high proportion of butter (and egg yolks) in them. Because the Bretons use so much butter, it’s traditionally salted to help preserve it. These cookies get their special flavor from using salted butter.
There’s often a discussion amongst people who write recipes whether or not to call for specialty ingredients, or specific brands. My take it to only call for them when they’re either absolutely necessary, or will make a big difference. Sending people on a wild goose chase for an ingredient to make a recipe isn’t usually appreciated, but in this case, with butter-rich cookies like these, using a top-quality salted butter is the key to their crisp, crumbly texture and salty-sweet flavor. And it’s worth seeking out.
I was excited to see the Little Flower Baking book. If I could only go everywhere, I would. And one of those places is Christine Moore’s Little Flower Cafe and Bakery in southern California, but I’ve had her amazing sea salt caramels, some of the best I’ve had anywhere, and knew from the first bite of those glossy, gooey beauties, that this woman knew her way around butter and salt. Having this book, filled with recipes from the bakery, is the next best thing to being there. (Well, I think. Since I haven’t been, I’m going to have to assume it is.)
For these sablés bretons, for best results use very good butter. In the U.S., some butter is labeled “European-style” which means it has a little less water and a higher fat content. Those are good choices, but even better are cultured butters, which have a live bacteria added to the cream before it’s churned and is the secret to the great-tasting pastries in France. Cultured butter takes longer to make and the culture not only gives the butter a richer flavor, but you can taste it in the finished pastry as well. At least I can.
You can get French brands of butter in the United States (Christine calls for Échere), although Kerrygold, Vermont Creamery, Straus, and other good-quality brands (some cultured, others not) of butter, are available stateside. I can’t go shopping with you (it’s that “I can’t go everywhere” thing…) but if you visit a well-stocked supermarket or food store, you should be able to find a good salted butter for these cookies. Even major brands like Land O Lakes and Challenge now make European-style butter.
The dough is quite sticky and I like to roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper. You’ll need a pastry scraper or metal spatula to help coax the cookies from the parchment after rolling. If the dough gets too warm and soft, you can place the rolled dough in the refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes until it firms up enough to cut.
The reward for seeking out good butter are rich little disks of buttery goodness, and as soon as mine were cool enough to eat, we dove in, accompanied by dark coffee. However I found the leftovers were great to snack on during the rest of the day. And I even found myself raiding the cookie jar (although I use a coffee can) first thing the next morning.