Ending the year on a sweet note

While some crave a savory delicacy like smoked salmon, caviar or foie gras, others are more tempted by a sweet treat.

Butter cookies_521 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Butter cookies_521
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
It’s customary to celebrate the New Year with a glass of champagne as well as a taste of something luxurious. While some crave a savory delicacy like smoked salmon, caviar or foie gras, others are more tempted by a sweet treat.
Satisfying sweets do not have to be costly or served in large portions. There’s no need for them to be elaborate either, like those desserts that have several components and take hours of preparation. Some of the best sweets are simple; they gain their excellence from the pure flavors of a few fine ingredients.
One such treat is the Breton butter cookie. When a friend of mine in Paris told me about them, I bought a small tin and was hooked immediately. I asked our chef at the cooking school where I was studying if we could make something similar, and the ones he taught us to bake were even more enticing – especially because we could taste them fresh from the oven.
Their buttery aroma and flavor, as well as their delicate, crumbly texture, were irresistible. Luckily, these cookies, which are enriched with egg yolks as well as butter, are easy to make.
In Scotland, shortbread is a traditional choice for an end-of-year treat. “Shortbread must, I think, take pride of place amongst all Scottish baking and no Scottish household would be without it at ‘Hogmanay’ (New Year’s Eve),” writes Rosalie Gow, author of Modern Ways with Traditional Scottish Recipes.
Classic shortbread has only three ingredients: flour, sugar and butter. “Eggs are not part of shortbread, and neither is vanilla, for that matter,” writes Marcy Goldman, author of The New Best of BetterBaking.com. Often more crumbly than butter cookies that contain eggs, shortbread’s texture varies according to the proportion of butter used as well as the type of flour and sugar.
Shortbread is popular in many lands. “The Lebanese, Syrians, Mexicans, Greeks, Norwegians, and other nationalities make variations of these melt-in-your mouth-nuggets,” writes Greg Patent, author of A Baker’s Odyssey, referring to the type of shortbread-like cookies coated in confectioner’s sugar after baking.
Patent’s Norwegian walnut butter balls, made with finely ground walnuts, are “small enough to pop into your mouth, and when you bite down, the cookie crumbles and shatters into tiny pieces that soon melt into a buttery deliciousness.” For his Scottish shortbread, which is crunchy and crisp, he calls for top-quality salted butter.
He notes that in Scotland many bakers substitute rice flour for part of the all-purpose flour to give the cookies added crunch.
Goldman likes shortbread because of “its unadulterated taste of butter, its sandy texture, and its simplicity.”
After having experimented with different kinds of flour and sugar, she prefers shortbread made with the time-honored choices of all-purpose flour and white sugar. To vary the classic cookie, she makes shortbreads flavored with coffee, cashews and mixed sweet spices, and Linzertorte shortbreads flavored with hazelnuts and spices and sandwiched with raspberry jam.
“Of all the ingredients that make up this kind of recipe,” writes Lisa Yockelson, author of Baking Style, “it is the butter that is the most significant. The crop of exemplary butters available at the market allows you to make a great-tasting cookie dough, one that can offer a full taste of the pastureland: creamy and faintly grassy.”
For a cookie that Yockelson calls “wildly lush hint-ofsalt lavender shortbread,” she adds lavender essence and vanilla. This cookie gains a delicate texture from extended beating of the butter and from her use of a mixture of all-purpose flour, cornstarch and white rice flour. For another shortbread variation, she uses rolled oats and brown sugar.
Yockelson emphasizes the importance of salt to the flavor of shortbread. “The absence of salt in shortbread always left me puzzled because it routinely tasted flat, though buttery.” She sprinkles a little French sea salt over her shortbreads before baking them so that the resulting cookie has “a fine contrast of sweet with a faintly salty edge.”
Make these rich cookies to celebrate the end of the year, for Shabbat, or for any other festive occasion.
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh From France: Dessert Sensations and, in Hebrew, of Sefer Ha’ugot (The Book of Cakes).
Cookies of this type are known in France as sables, or “sand cookies,” because of their crumbly texture. They owe their delicious flavor to the generous proportion of butter to other ingredients. If you make them with salted butter, omit the salt in the dough.
The cookies can be kept up to one week in an airtight container, or they can be frozen.
Makes about 12 to 18 cookies
110 gr. (4 ounces or 1⁄2 cup) unsalted butter, cold 4 large egg yolks 1⁄2 cup sugar 1⁄4 teaspoon salt 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract or 2 tsp. grated lemon or orange zest 11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour 1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
To make dough in a food processor:
Cut butter into approximately 1⁄2-tablespoon-size cubes. Combine yolks, sugar, salt, butter and vanilla in food processor fitted with metal blade. Mix using 10 on/off turns; then process for 5 seconds. Small pieces of butter will remain.
Add flour and process about 2 seconds; scrape down with rubber spatula and process again for a few seconds or until dough begins to form sticky crumbs but does not come together in a ball. If dough is dry, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon water and briefly process again. Transfer to work surface.
To make pastry by hand:
Sift flour onto a work surface and make a well in the center. Put egg yolks, salt, sugar and vanilla or grated peel in well and mix briefly, using your fingers. Cut butter into about 10 pieces and pound to soften them slightly. Separate butter again into pieces, add them into the well and quickly mix with other ingredients in well until partially mixed. Gradually draw in flour to make coarse crumbs. Toss mixture, rubbing it between your fingers, until crumbs begin to stick together.
If dough is dry, add 1 teaspoon water and continue to crumble dough through your fingers.
Blend dough by pushing portions of it away from you and smearing it on the work surface, then gathering it up together again. Repeat twice more until the dough is nearly smooth. Press it into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap or in a plastic bag. Refrigerate dough at least 3 hours or up to 3 days before rolling it.
Preheat oven to 190ºC (375ºF). Lightly butter 2 baking sheets. Roll out dough on a cool, lightly floured surface until 6 mm. (1⁄4 inch) thick. Using a 6.5- to 7.5-cm. (21⁄2- to 3-inch) cutter, cut dough in rounds and transfer them to baking sheets. Press trimmings gently together and chill them. Roll them out and cut more rounds. Brush cookies with beaten egg. With tines of a fork, mark a triangle or other design on each one. Refrigerate 15 minutes.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until very lightly browned. Cool cookies on a rack.
This recipe is from A Baker’s Odyssey. Author Greg Patent got the recipe from a Scottish American. “The shortbread, buttery, crunchy, and crisp, is simplicity itself,” he writes, “but you must be sure of your oven temperature in order not to overbake it.” For added crunch you can substitute 1⁄2 cup rice flour for 1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour. He recommends good strong hot tea as the perfect beverage to serve with these cookies.
Stored in an airtight container at room temperature, these cookies keep fresh for a week or longer. They can be frozen for up to one month.
Makes 18 cookies
225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) best-quality salted butter, slightly softened 1⁄2 cup granulated sugar 1⁄2 tsp. pure vanilla extract (optional) 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 165ºC (325ºF). Line a large baking sheet (46x30x2.5 cm. or 18x12x1 inch) with a silicone baking pan liner or cooking parchment, or use a nonstick pan.
When you press the butter gently with a fingertip, it should yield only slightly, leaving just a shallow dent. In a medium bowl, beat the butter with a wooden spoon or electric mixer until it is smooth and fluffy. Add sugar and beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the mixture is very smooth and light-textured. Beat in vanilla, if using. Add flour 1 cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon until thoroughly incorporated. The dough will gather into a thick mass. Scrape it onto an unfloured work surface and knead briefly until smooth.
To shape the cookies into rectangles, lightly dust your work surface with flour, place the dough on it, and pat the dough to flatten it slightly. Roll it into a 6-mm.- (1⁄4- inch-) thick rectangle (no thinner!) measuring about 23 x 15 cm. (9 x 6 inches). Square the edges with your fingertips. With a sharp knife, cut the dough lengthwise into 3 strips, then cut the strips crosswise into 6 pieces each to make 18 cookies. With a metal spatula, transfer cookies to prepared baking sheet, leaving 1.25 to 2.5 cm. (1⁄2 to 1 inch) between them. Prick each cookie with a fork 3 times down its length, going all the way down to the pan.To cut out cookies, roll the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rough circle that is 6 mm. (1⁄4 inch) thick.
Stamp out cookies with cutters of any shape, then gather the dough scraps and reroll as necessary – but do not incorporate any more flour or the cookies will be dry.
Transfer cookies to prepared baking pan with a metal spatula. Do not prick them.
Bake for about 25 minutes, only until the tops of the cookies take on a faint golden brown color and the bottoms are slightly darker. Rotate the sheet front to back once about halfway during baking to ensure even browning. Do not overbake – start checking about 5 minutes before the cookies are done to monitor their progress. Cool the cookies on their pan for 3 to 4 minutes until they’ve firmed up a bit, then transfer them to wire cooling racks with a metal spatula and cool completely.