Monday, February 10, 2014

A Tale of French Sables

Somewhere, at some time, I was aware of French cookies called "Sables." I have no idea when or where I heard of them, but they were stashed in the dusty files in my brain. If asked what, exactly, they are, I would have to say "a French cookie" but without any real details. So, while watching one of the myriad TV shows, I heard mention of French Sables and was curious. I am not French, not do I have any French in my background, so I cannot give any reason except 3 years of high school French classes, for hearing the person on TV pronounce the word as SAH-blays and just "knowing" that this was incorrect. I did more research online and indeed, there is just about every pronunciation under the sun - all of them different. Written in French, the "e" on the end of the word has an accent mark above it, which indicates it is pronounced. All I can assume is that this happened just like with the Spanish word Queso and pronounced in the US as KAY-so (also incorrect). The actual pronunciation of that work is softer; KEH-so. Anyway, back to my windy irritation at mispronounced words, I believe, coming from 3 years of high school French, that Sables is pronounced SAH-blehs; the second syllable soft. I read online of someone saying that a French chef pronounced them SAH-blees, but again, just as American ears hear KAY-so, they may have heard SAH-blees. You say tomato, I say SAH-blehs.
Green Tea Lime Sables

Okay, enough on that subject. My next beef is that in so many places I have read that Sables are a type of "shortbread" cookie. Again, my knowledge of shortbread is that it is crumbly, mainly due to the complete lack of egg in the dough. Shortbread tends to "poof" apart when trying to cut or bite. "Mexican Wedding Cakes" or Guatemalan Polvorosas are shortbread type cookies. And they really let you know it when biting into one. Every recipe for Sables I searched online and the one I saw on TV used egg yolks in the dough. Ergo: not shortbread.

Okay, so I have established (in my mind) what these cookies are not. So, what are Sables? Sables are a French cookie and according to Wikipedia, originally from Caen, in Lower Normandy. The word "sable" means "sand" in French, and the cookies given this name for their sandy texture and golden color. Outside of that, there seems to be every which way to make them, similar to all the pronunciations. Some of the recipes roll out the cookie dough and cut them into rounds. Some leave them as single wafers. Some dust with powdered sugar. Some roll in a log and chill, then slice to bake. Some roll into a brick shape, chill and slice to bake. Some slice the chilled dough very thinly, some slice it very thick, or anywhere in between. Some sandwich them with jam in the middle. Some brush the edges of the chilled dough with egg yolk before cutting and roll in large-crystal sugar. Others slice the chilled dough and brush egg yolk on the tops and sprinkle with large crystal sugar. This large crystal sugar is often called "Sanding Sugar". Turbinado sugar works, too.

So, with all this in mind, and having read about 10 different methods for making Sables, I created a recipe of my own. I wanted interesting flavor, and had just bought a new bag of Matcha Green Tea powder. This new bag of tea is far, far darker green than my previous bag. Now I can understand why some of the baked goods in photos on the web are that deep, rich green color. My green tea baked goods were always very pale. I wanted to combine lemon zest with the green tea powder, thinking that lemon and tea always go well together. Unfortunately, I had no lemons left in the fridge. So, limes. At least the the tea powder and the lime zest were both green. I would have green cookies. They turned out with a beautiful tender texture, tending to easily break into little sandy bits. The cookies are not fragile, just have that sandy texture they talked about.


Most recipes for Sables have a large amount of butter. This contributes to the cookies' texture. The egg yolks that seem to be in almost all the recipes are a binding agent. While the cookies are a little crumbly, they do have a nice tender crispness to them. Most recipes used no leavening (though some do), so they do not grow much in the oven. The most important thing to remember if you want nice tender cookies is not to overwork the dough, particularly after the flour is added. And, after all that, here is my recipe for how to bake Sables.

Green Tea Lime Sables


1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
Steps 1 and 2
3 - 4 tablespoons fresh lime zest (about 2 limes)
2 teaspoons Matcha green tea powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
2 cups, minus 2 tablespoons flour
----------------------------
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
large crystal sugar, for sprinkling (about 1/4 cup)

Step One: In a small bowl, combine the first 4 ingredients. Use fingers to work the zest into the mixture and release the oils. 

Steps 3 and 4
Step Two: In a mixing bowl, or stand mixer, beat the butter until smooth and creamy. Add in the granulated sugar with the confectioners' sugar mixture and mix just to combine. Add the 2 egg yolks and again, mix just to combine. If using a mixer, remove the bowl and set the mixer aside. I wrote in the ingredient list "minus 2 tablespoons" of the flour as my dough was difficult to make come together; a little less may work better. Add in the flour and work quickly with a spoon or spatula until it is in large crumbs

Step Three: Turn the dough out onto a surface and using a bench scraper, bring the dough together, fold, turn and scrape. 

Steps 5 and 6
Step Four: Once the dough mostly holds shape, divide into 2 portions. 

Step Five: Form each portion into a log shape or a small brick, as desired. 

Step Six: Roll the dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least 3 hours. You want the dough to be nicely hardened so it holds its shape when slicing. At this point the dough can be left in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days or even frozen for a month, if needed.

Step Seven: When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 on Convection). Remove one of the portions of dough from the refrigerator at a time. Unwrap from the plastic and using a very sharp knife, slice the dough into 1/4-inch thick slices. Lay the slices onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment. This makes the removal of the cookies far easier. If removing from a dry baking sheet, they could break, crumble of become deformed. Use the parchment. 

Steps 7 and 8
Step Eight: Mix together the remaining egg yolk with the water and brush onto the tops of the cookies. Sprinkle sugar onto the egg-brushed cookies. 

Bake them for 18 to 20 minutes, or until just turning golden at the edges. Slide the whole parchment with cookies on to a rack or counter to cool before removing from the parchment. This made 28 (2 1/2 x 2 1/2-inch) cookies.




My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.  

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