Alas, we have arrived to the season of the cookie, perhaps the most inspired of all seasons because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good cookie? It’s cold outside (and if you’ve been living on the East Coast, ooooh-weee did it get cold, or did it get cold?), you’ve got a cup of tea by your side, and you can’t be expected to have your tea solo, now can you? No, your tea deserves a companion, a partner in crime (if eating cookies is indeed a crime), and nothing accompanies a hot tea better than a simple, humble butter cookie. Also, few things make a better homemade gift around this time of year. Certainly, from the looks of it the butter cookie might come across as too unambitious a player in the Christmas cookie assortment, but it is precisely because it’s so unassuming and straight-forward, that it is the most versatile. Add a bit of lemon zest to it, and I’m a goner.
I should probably confess first that the butter cookie, the sablé, is my favorite type of cookie in the world. Throw a macaron in my direction and I’ll gladly, and gratefully, eat it. But give me a butter cookie, a tender, melt-in-your-mouth rich morsel of the perfect marriage of butter, sugar, and eggs, and I will be yours forever. It’s that easy. And no, while Andrew didn’t woo me with sablés, he sure appreciates a good cookie when he sees one. And this cookie that I got for you today is that cookie. It is perfection embodied and it comes in such a delightfully small size, that you could have a couple and not feel like you’ve just made a mess of things. One bite and the cookie melts in your mouth.
I made some last weekend and gave them out as gifts to friends. One friend, whom I saw for dinner Monday night, wrote to me late that night upon getting home, “These cookies are ridiculous… I think the lemon butter ones are my favorite.” She has impeccable taste as I couldn’t agree more. Because out of the three kinds of cookies I made last weekend, both Andrew and I agreed that the lemon ones were by far our most treasured treats. We mostly kept them for ourselves, selfishly enough, and I packed a small tin with Andrew on his trip to the West Coast. Which sort of tells you that if we were so reluctant to share them with others, just how amazing they really are.
The recipe comes from Dorie Greenspan’s amazing book, “Paris Sweets”, which anyone who likes to bake should really consider owning. As usual, Dorie doesn’t just offer great recipes, but she also makes sure her books are full of specific, thorough, and helpful instructions. Like how to make sure you get a tender cookie – the kind that will feel like you’re eating light, buttery, lemon-scented air, and not floury, leaden, doughy lump. Also, unsatisfied with just telling us what to do, she gently explains to us why we have to do it. Resting the dough in the refrigerator isn’t just to torture you so that you plan a day ahead. A good overnight rest relaxes the gluten – which means a happier end-result for you – namely a cookie that’s easier to slice and one that retains its shape during baking. I, for one, need to know why I have to do certain things – it makes me be more vigilant about following the instructions, and it’s a satisfying knowledge to understand the chemical reactions behind cooking. Yes, I liked chemistry in school, in case you’re wondering.
Because Dorie’s recipes are pretty much spot-on every time, I decided not to mess with perfection thus changing only one, albeit a cosmetic, thing in the recipe. I rolled my logs, pressed them so and so and made four sides out of a cylindrical, elongated dough. When I got to cutting my cookies the following day, they were squarish and ever-so-pretty, their sugar-coated sides glistening in the light. They made for pretty stacking, and pretty snacking too. I allowed myself a stack of four cookies at a time, just enough for my cup of tea, which also tells you that I can practice incredible restraint when I will myself to it. This cookie, unassuming though it may be, is of the most dangerous variety – so good, you don’t see the butter sneaking up on you. Before you know it, you’ll be staring at an empty tin wishing that you’d made a double batch, which, given the dough rest requirements, means your next cookie is at least a day away. And that just might be too long a wait.
Lemon Butter Cookies
Adapted from Paris Sweets
Dorie gives 2 very important pieces of advice here that I followed to a tee. One, be genlt e when mixing the flour. “Tender cookies,” she advises, “depend on a tender touch, so you don’t want to rough up the flour and activate the gluten.” Two, she says, give your dough plenty of rest in the refrigerator. I gave mine a whole night to think things over and by the next day, it was a dream. Dorie tells us that by refrigerating the dough, we let the gluten relax, which also helps the cookies to hold their shape during slicing and baking. I also shaped my dough into a squarish log – as I wanted cute square cookies. The stayed squarish all right. I have one important piece of advice: get good butter. As good as you can afford, because given that this is a butter cookie, the butter plays a key role in how crumbly, lush and decadent your cookie will turn out. Plugra or Kerrygold butter (what I used) work beautifully here, as will any cultured butter, which contains a higher percentage of butterfat than regular butter.
2 sticks (8 oz; 230 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅔ cup ( 2 ½ oz; 70 grams) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature, separated
pinch of salt
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
grated zest of 1-2 lemons (to taste)
2 cups (9 ⅞ oz; 280 grams) all-purpose flour
Approximately ½ cup (3 ½ oz; 100 grams) sugar, for coating
Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and beat at medium speed until it is smooth and satiny. Add the sifte confectioners’ sugar and beat again, starting on the lowest speed, gradually increasing, until the mixture is smooth and silky. Beat in 1 of the egg yolks, followed by salt, vanilla, and zest.
Turn the mixer speed off and add the flour. Turn the mixer on the lowest setting and mix until the flour just disappears. It’s crucial here not to overbeat. So, if you see that the flour isn’t fully incorporated, that’s okay – just blend in whatever remaining flour there is using a rubber spatula.
Tear 2 pieces of plastic wrap enough to wrap the dough that will be deivded in half. Spoon half the dough onto one piece, and the other half onto the other piece. By lifting sides of the plastic wrap and placing them over the dough, shape each mound into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Working on a smooth surface, still using that same piece of plastic wrap, to keep your dough in place, form each piece of dough into a log that is about 1 to 1 ¼ inches thick. Dorie tells us here that if you get the thickness right, you will end up with the proper log length. Then you use the piece of plastic to wrap the dough back up and give it at least a 2 hour rest. I gave it an overnight rest because I thought it could use some lounging time. In retrospect, that was the best decision I could’ve made.
Position the racks in the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 Celsius). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. [If you happen to be on a mad cookie baking project, remember this – you can reuse your parchment paper, which is both much simpler logistically, and creates less waste!]
While oven preheats, work on the sugar coating, by whisking the other egg yolk in a small bowl until it is smooth enough to be used as glaze. Spread the sugar out on a piece of wax paper. Remove he logs of dough from the refrigerator, unwrap them and while they’re lying in the plastic wrap, brush them lightly with a little egg yolk. You want a thin coating so that the sugar sticks.
Roll the logs in the sugar, making sure to coat all sides. Then, using a sharp, thin knife, slice each log int o cookies about ¼ inch thick. Place the cookies on the lined baking sheets, leaving about ½ inch space between them.
Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes, rotating midway, or until they are set but not browned, though it’s fine if the yolk/sugar edges brown a tiny bit. Remove the cookies from the oven and let them cool for 5 minutes, before transferring the cookies to a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.
Packed air-tight, the cookies will keep for 5 days at room temperature, but good luck keeping them that long.
Makes about 50 cookies.