THERE’S A REASON we don’t put out a platter of Christmas goose or plum pudding for Santa on Christmas Eve. Would Saint Nick really bother making that awkward journey down the sooty chimney for anything but a plate of cookies?
Ah, but what kind of cookies to serve Santa—or just scarf down yourself? The perpetual Yuletide question. You could always go for the chunky variety, packed with cornflakes or pretzels, or the cookie-cutter sort that makes for decorating razzle-dazzle—if not great flavor. But for ease of execution, sheer variety, striking visual impact and sigh-inducing buttery richness, nothing beats the simple sablé.
Sablés may sound French and fancy, but they’re really just a Gallic refinement on English shortbread—yes, the same kind of crunchy, buttery cookie that took the internet by storm last year via cookbook author Alison Roman’s Salted Butter Chocolate Chunk Shortbread. But I submit this: Ms. Roman’s iteration was just the first in a long while to take advantage of the unique adaptability and appeal of a time-honored recipe.
In their classic form, sablés are made from just four ingredients: flour, butter, sugar, salt. But the operative word here is butter. In fact, as my husband, a confirmed sablé obsessive, put it, “This cookie is really just crumbly butter.” If that description alone entices you, then you’re just moments away from a transcendent experience with the unadorned, unadulterated sablé recipe provided on page D6. But if a simple butter cookie sounds too plain for this over-the-top season, fear not—the purity of its taste and the addictive quality of its crunch make the sablé the ideal carrier for a range of festive flavors, from citrus to spice to matcha. Master one shamelessly easy dough, and you can tweak the flavor (and the look) of your cookies with multiple mix-ins.
Blend in cocoa powder and chopped chocolate, and you’ve got deep, dark double-chocolate cookies. Beat rosewater, dried apricots and pistachios into the dough, and you’ve made cookies with a Middle Eastern savor. Candied ginger and grated orange peel deliver a classic Christmas cookie that puts gingerbread to shame. No matter what variation you choose, a bare minimum of sugar in the dough ensures that even subtle flavors come through loud and clear. The sparkly sugar you coat the logs of dough in before slicing gives the cookies added sweetness and crunch, and makes them shine on the cookie plate, too. The diminutive size of each crunchy round makes it all too easy to sample multiple varieties.
The toughest part of making the dough might be waiting for the butter to come to room temperature—it should be about the texture of thick moisturizer so the sugar blends in almost instantly. And since unsalted butter is the star here, seek out the best you can find. Go for high-fat, cultured and/or grass-fed varieties like Plugrá, Kerrygold and Organic Valley.
And you’ll definitely need to pick up at least a couple pounds of butter for this recipe, because you’ll want to make more than one batch. Christmas baking usually involves juggling the tastes of kids and adults, aunts twice-removed and hard-to-impress guests—and that’s just one more area where the sablé shines. Since the base recipe is so stripped down, you can go overboard with hardly any effort, making three or four flavors to suit your audience. A slew of different varieties and colors makes for an eye-catching array on an elegant platter, too.
No need to serve dozens of cookies at once? No worries. Once you’ve whipped up a rainbow of doughs, the logs freeze beautifully, especially when you chill them first nestled in the indentations of a broiler pan or inserted into paper-towel rolls so they hold a perfectly round shape. Once they firm up, transfer to a resealable bag and stash in the freezer for up to two months.
Even better, you can bake the cookies straight from frozen. Whether you slice the dough fresh or frozen, be sure your chef’s knife (or better yet, serrated knife) is nice and sharp to minimize crumbling, which can happen when cutting through nuts, dried fruit or chocolate in the dough. If a slice of dough does fall apart, though, there’s no need for panic. Simply press the cookie back together. The sablé is remarkably forgiving.
Having a freezer filled with logs of cookie dough will give you a calm, perhaps even smug feeling that’s the polar opposite of holiday hysteria. In mere minutes, at a moment’s notice, you can bake a batch to bring to a holiday party (way more welcome than yet another bottle of bubbly), ship to a friend (the cookies stack prettily in thin plastic sleeves tied with ribbon), or just fill a cookie jar (yes, this recipe just might convert you into a cookie-jar kind of person). Fair warning, though: Thanks to their petite size, subtle flavor and unmatched munchability, you might find yourself popping six or seven at a sitting, just like Santa would.
Buttery Holiday Sablé Cookies
TOTAL TIME: 1¾ hours MAKES: 24 cookies
11 tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons) high-fat unsalted butter, such as Plugrá brand, softened
⅓ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as Maldon brand
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sanding, decorative, sparkle or Demarara sugar, such as Sugar in the Raw brand
1. Use an electric mixer to beat butter on medium speed until soft and whipped, 2-3 minutes. Add sugar and continue beating until well incorporated, about 1 minute. Add flaky sea salt and beat briefly to combine. Add flour and beat until almost all flour disappears into dough. (Dough should be moist but crumbly.) Use a rubber spatula to give dough a few final stirs, scraping up from bottom to incorporate any butter or dry bits in bottom of bowl.
2. Use a rubber spatula to scrape one-quarter of dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Fold plastic wrap over dough and gently roll to form a 6-inch-long log, twisting ends to pull plastic wrap taut and help dough hold its shape. Repeat with remaining dough to form three more logs. Unwrap logs and roll in sanding sugar until evenly coated. Rewrap dough logs, twisting ends of plastic wrap tightly. Transfer logs to refrigerator and chill until firm and sliceable, at least 1 hour or up to 3 days. (For perfectly round cookies, insert logs into empty paper towel rolls to chill.)
3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees and arrange racks in upper and lower thirds of oven. Remove plastic wrap from dough. Use a sharp chef’s knife to trim ends of logs and then cut dough into ⅜-inch-thick rounds. Arrange cookies on 2 ungreased rimmed baking sheets, spaced about 1½-inches apart. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until cookies are firm and undersides are lightly toasted, 18-21 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets 1-2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks and let cool completely, about 30 minutes. Cookies can be made up to 2 weeks ahead and kept in a covered container at room temperature.
Variation #1: Orange Ginger
In a small bowl, rub 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest into granulated sugar until well-combined and fragrant. Beat into whipped butter along with 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger. Toss ¼ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger with flour. Proceed with recipe. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with ½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest.
Variation #2: Matcha and White Chocolate
Beat 4 teaspoons matcha into butter-sugar mixture. Proceed with recipe, adjusting amount to 1½ cups flour. Beat ½ cup finely chopped white chocolate into dough. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with ½ teaspoon matcha.
Variation #3: Strawberry and Black Pepper
In a food processor, pulse ½ cup freeze-dried strawberries until mostly pulverized. (Alternatively, you can work in batches using a clean spice grinder.) Transfer to a medium bowl and whisk with 1½ cups flour and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Proceed with recipe. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with 3-4 drops red food coloring in a small resealable plastic bag. Seal and shake until sugar becomes evenly pink.
Variation #4: Salty Double-Chocolate Chunk
In a medium bowl, combine 1½ cups flour and ¼ cup Dutch cocoa powder. Beat into butter-sugar mixture, continuing to beat until well combined. Add 3 ounces finely chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, and beat until ingredients come together. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with a bit more flaky sea salt.
Variation #5: Apricot, Rosewater and Pistachio
Beat 2 teaspoons rosewater into butter-sugar mixture. Add ⅓ cup finely chopped dried apricots and ½ cup finely chopped raw pistachios, and toss to help break up any clumping. Proceed with recipe. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with 2 tablespoons finely chopped pistachios.
Variation #6: Chai Spice
In a small bowl, combine ¼ teaspoon flaky sea salt, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground cloves, ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom and a few grinds of black pepper. Beat into butter-sugar mixture. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to lightly crush 4 teaspoons loose black tea, such as Darjeeling or English Breakfast, and add to butter-sugar mixture. Beat to combine. Proceed with recipe. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with 2 pinches ground cinnamon.
Variation #7: Meyer Lemon and Thyme
In a small bowl, rub 1 tablespoon finely grated Meyer lemon zest (or 1½ teaspoons finely grated lemon zest plus 1½ teaspoons finely grated tangerine zest) and ½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves into granulated sugar until well combined and fragrant. Proceed with recipe. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with ½ teaspoon lemon zest.
Variation #8: Turkish Coffee with Cacao Nibs
In a small saucepan, simmer 1 cup double-strength brewed coffee with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar over medium heat until coffee reduces to a thick syrup (about 1½ tablespoons), about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Add ½ teaspoon ground cardamom to butter-sugar mixture. Beat in cooled coffee syrup, then flour and ¼ cup cacao nibs until well combined. Proceed with recipe. To coat dough logs, combine sanding sugar with 2 pinches ground cardamom.
Variation #9: Lime in the Coconut
In a small bowl, rub 1 tablespoon finely grated lime zest into granulated sugar until well combined and fragrant. Proceed with recipe, adjusting amount to 1½ cups flour and adding ½ cup unsweetened grated coconut. To coat dough logs, toss ¼ cup sanding sugar with ¼ cup grated coconut and ½ teaspoon finely grated lime zest.