When I have writer’s block, I like to bake shortbread.
I've probably mentioned it before, but during senior year of college, whenever my thesis and I got into a disagreement, I’d pull out the flour bin and fetch another pound of butter from the freezer. There's something very soothing about the process of creaming together butter and sugar, working in flour, shaping a round and baking it to a perfect shade of pale gold. Suffice to say, my housemates ate a lot of shortbread that year.
Two months into first semester, I tired of plain butter, and started experimenting with other seasonings. Saffron caught my eye somewhere around the time that I was fighting the third draft of my second chapter. The problem with saffron, however, is that it needs to be “bloomed” in water or other liquid in order to release its flavor, and water encourages gluten development. Adding water to the shortbread would have made it tough.
I tried working the saffron into the butter and letting it sit before creaming it with the sugar, but there wasn’t much saffron flavor in the final product. Then I developed an obsession with salt caramel, and saffron shortbread fell by the wayside.
I'd almost forgotten my experiments with shortbread when I came into contact with someone else's culinary experiment: a homemade saffron liqueur, a little too strong to be palatable as a beverage, but perfect for cooking purposes. I used it in sauces to serve with fish, and then, one day when I found myself face-to-face with a legal writing assignment I had no desire to complete, the bottle of golden liquid caught my eye as I was getting butter out to bake shortbread.
I thought of medieval cooks using saffron and egg yolks to decorate pastries. Adding egg yolk to a basic mixture of butter, sugar, and flour produces dough for sablés, the Norman cousins of shortbread. Saffron gives them a deeper yellow hue, like tiny golden suns. Even before they were baked, I had a feeling that they were going to be cookies worthy of a special occasion.
Fortunately, the food blogosphere has that special occasion covered: October’s Monthly Mingle has a theme of High Tea Treats. In all honestly, I will probably eat my sablés at my desk while I work on that writing assignment I've been avoiding, but they needn't be limited to such humble surroundings. I think they'd be quite at home on a silver salver with a pot of Earl Grey, don't you?
Regular good-quality butter is fine for these cookies, but if you can get your hands on European or European-style cultured butter, they'll be even better. I recommend mixing the dough with a fork: I will concede the use of a food processor if you’re making multiple batches, but for a single batch, it’s nonsense to say you can’t achieve a fine, sandy texture by hand.
(Makes approximately three dozen two-inch cookies.)
To make a saffron infusion, measure out one tablespoon of vodka and one tablespoon of gin (or use just vodka if you don't have gin; it's not essential), and place in a small bowl with a generous pinch of saffron threads. Cover with cling wrap and leave in the fridge overnight.
For the sablés, get out a large mixing bowl, and use a fork to cream together one stick (four ounces) of unsalted butter with a quarter-cup of white sugar. Add one egg yolk, a generous quarter-teaspoon of salt, and the saffron infusion (with the saffron); stir until smooth.
Gradually work in one cup (five ounces) of all-purpose flour until fully incorporated. The dough will be quite soft. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 300F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.
Lay out a sheet of wax paper and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Place the dough on it. Cover with another sheet of wax paper, and roll out to a one-eighth-inch thickness. Remove the top layer of wax paper, and use a two-inch cookie cutter to stamp out rounds. (Dough scraps may be gathered, re-chilled briefly, and rolled out again.) Place the rounds on the baking tray.
Transfer the baking tray to the oven. Bake for sixteen to nineteen minutes, or until very slightly browned at the edges. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before serving.