Thursday, October 15, 2009

a sweet in search of an occasion

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?



Saffron Sablés

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.

24 comments:

Virgin In The Volcano said...

Take my word for it, folks: these were excellent!

adele said...

Virgin - When you're published to critical acclaim, can you put a "Virgin Endorses" section on your blog?

Virgin In The Volcano said...

I'd be glad to!

Carl said...

Why gin in the infusion? It seems like it would make everything taste like christmas. "And not in a good way."

adele said...

Carl - The homemade liqueur contains gin. Most of the flavors are overwhelmed by the saffron, but it seems to add a bit of something else. Of course, if you don't have gin, you can use just vodka - I tried it that way, and the cookies come out fine.

Actually, I'll update the recipe with a note to that effect.

Aparna said...

These sables are very worthy of High tea. Thanks for joining us.

If we eat good food only at special occasions, how awful would that be? :)

adele said...

Aparna - You're welcome! Thank you for hosting!

If we declared every meal a special occasion, I don't think it would be bad at all. :)

Lindsey@pickyeatings said...

I bake when stressed or upset as well. It calms me, and makes me forget my troubles/worries for at least a few hours. And then I send the results to work with my husband...needless to say, I am popular with his coworkers.

adele said...

Lindsey - I like to joke that I made friends in law school through baked goods. :P

~~louise~~ said...

I planted saffron bulbs in Pennsylvania 2 years ago not realizing they needed constant protection (I think the groundhogs got them:( I can't wait to finally get there permanently so I can try again.

I too was trying to figure out a way to capture the essence. I think the juniper in the gin would enhance the mixture but I have had great success with vodka on other occasions. I'm wondering if sealing the stamens in sugar would bring out the aroma. It works with vanilla beans. Perhaps with saffron???

Your shortbread cookies are just what I need for this cup of tea I am drinking. Thanks for sharing, Adele.

Joh said...

If I ever can afford saffron (steep price anyways, PLUS NYC inflation) I think that turning it into liqueur and making shortbread is a good way to make it last.
Whenever my thesis gave me trouble in college, I made coffee cake. Something about smushing together the crumb topping, plus having something to dunk into the pots and pots of coffee I made during that year was comforting. :)

adele said...

Louise - Saffron sugar? Sounds interesting, but again, I think you might need liquid to bring out the flavor...

Joh - I hear you. If that friend hadn't been generous with her experiments, I wouldn't have saffron, either. (I had to raid another generous friend's spice collection to get a pinch to confirm that one could mimic the infusion with vodka and gin.)

And coffee cake sounds like an excellent thesis-comfort idea. :)

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Adele,
I have seen many recipes where the threads are first ground with sugar and then incorporated into the batter. So I thought it possible. I have a feeling, like you said, it just "may need the liquid to bring out the flavor." I would like to experiment anyway but I will wait until I grow my own, too pricey...

adele said...

Louise - Interesting! I have Spanish friends who have mentioned that they could get saffron in Spain that's cheaper than what you'll find in stores here... maybe it's time to ask them when they're going back next. :)

Photon said...

Your photography is getting better! They look amazing.

adele said...

Photon - From you, I believe that's high praise. :)

Cakelaw said...

Yum! When I saw the words "vodka" and "gin", I sat up straight in my chair - now I will have to make my own saffron infusion.

adele said...

Cakelaw - I believe the way my friend makes saffron liqueur is to steep the saffron in the vodka for a few months, then strain it and add gin. The infusion in the recipe is the quick version, for immediate use. :)

Bobbie Sue said...

Adele--Can't wait to make your shortbread. It sounds delightful. With regards to the Vodka infusion--it is often used in cake decorating with lusters. It is the perfect medium for dissolving as it has no taste and does not affect the chemistry. Good problem solving!

Bobbie Sue

adele said...

Bobbie Sue - I didn't know that, but it makes perfect sense. :)

Joy Hui Lin said...

I've been wondering what to do with a butternut squash from the market. Gnocchi sounds great!

adele said...

Joy - Butternut squash aren't the same as buttercup. They're very moist - if you're making gnocchi from them, roast without water in the pan, and leave the squash to drain after you've roasted it.

Claudia said...

Your sables sound delightful, perfect for comfort food. Just checked and I have enough saffron left in the freezer to make that infusion.

adele said...

Claudia - Thank you! It doesn't take much for the infusion - it really is just a pinch. :)