20 December 2011

What astonishes

I like remembering people through things they taught me. Take my good Italian friend Paola for example. Before moving to London, Paola worked at the bakery for a few years. I learnt a lot from her. First and foremost, she passed me the knowledge of macaron craftsmanship. Every Wednesday I make macarons at work now I think of Paola. The eye for a good meringue, the careful wrist movement, the assertive hold of a pastry bag, she was there with me as I was making wonky baby steps towards the skillfully made macaron. I’m thankful to her for this, thankful with capital T. What I’m also grateful to her for is that she showed me some special cookies one distant day in past.

Chocolate and sea salt, bound into union by brown sugar, butter and flour, all packed into the medallion of a cookie, sea salt chocolate sables (French-style shortbreads), man, they stole my heart. I made over one hundred and fifty of them for the personal use over the course of the last one and a half weeks, which screams out loud that these cookies are seriously good. Or that I’m losing my mind. A voice in my head tells it’s both.

If you are still figuring out what sweet species to include in your Christmas cookie tin, a place, as we all understand, notoriously known for being intolerant to the stale and tasteless, could I suggest you try these sea salt chocolate sables. Created, as I learnt, by the veritable French pastry chef Pierre Herme, he of the Isphahan macaron fame, among much, much else, these cookies are destined to deliver. I’d even say they are bound to surprise. Of course there is nothing surprising about the already classical combination of sea salt and chocolate, but that’s not what I mean anyway. What I’m driving at is the way the sweet (caramel-y from the brown sugar and bitter from the chocolate) and salty co-exist here. Upon the first bite, preceded by a clear and crisp snap!, it’s a sweet talk all over. The eater chews ever so slightly for a second or two, freeing the chocolate flavor from the cookie case all the while, and salty sticks its neck out from seemingly every sugary molecule in the sable. And at the end what astonishes the palate is not the fact that the confection is sweet and salty, but that it’s both at the same time. The impression lasts even if a stray salt crystal resides on this tooth or that for a little while.

Also to be noted: the said cookie is rife with chocolate. But doesn’t come from the use of chocolate alone. The latter is chaperoned by cacao powder and that is what makes the deep omnipresent chocolate flavor even more proper. In other words, the whole cookie, so wholesome and many-faceted at once, is the capital excitant for the palate. It’s small, but it plays big. I’m happy to have lost my heart, and mind, to it.When it comes to keeper recipes, I’m a slow burner, I noticed. Paola made them a tough more than a year ago as one of her contributions to our mutual friend’s seventy-five people party that she and I had been asked to cook for. One cookie a pop was the idea, but I remember snatching a handful, surely leaving somebody cookie-less thereof. I know I should have been sorry or something, but honestly I was not. The cookie, as described above, was worth a sin or two. I’ve been thinking about that sable frequently ever since, but make it myself, well, I didn’t (am I lazy? forgetful? I don’t know!). I knew Paola left the recipe in a recipe folder at the bakery (the private party took place there), so before leaving in September I copied the recipe neatly with a view to make it imminently, which I didn’t get to do – until recently.

Despite having already made over a hundred and fifty (see the second paragraph above) for only the two of us, Anthony and myself, there are no intentions on my side to discontinue the process. I don’t see how I could, now that my mind got whisked away by the power of sea salt chocolate sable. Thank you, Paola!

Happy holidays, Dear Reader! Happy cooking, happy eating!

Pierre Herme’s Sea Salt Chocolate Sables
Adapted from Pierre Herme via a dear friend Paola
Yield: about 36 cookies

I can’t see how one could improve upon these darlings. They are great. A few minor things I changed are simply a matter of personal preference. One, instead of chopping chocolate into chip-size bits, I grind it (after some rough chopping). This way, the chocolate melts into everywhere in the cookie. Two, I also grind a fresh vanilla bean, which is, perhaps, just fussy, but I like the intense vanilla flavor the cookie sees from it.

And lastly, as cookies go, these are triply best when the dough rests amply in the fridge. Make the dough, form the logs, chill and bake the next day while replenishing the dough stash, if desired (which it will be). The recipe doubles beautifully.

175 g (6.2 oz) all-purpose flour
30 g (1 oz) best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder, such as Valrhona
½ tsp baking powder
150 g (5.3 oz) butter, at room temperature
120 (4.2 oz) g light brown sugar
50 g (1.7 oz) sugar
½ tsp fluer de sel or ¼ tsp fine sea salt
½ tsp ground vanilla bean, or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
150 g (5.3 oz) best-quality bittersweet chocolate, such as Valrhona, finely ground

1. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder. Set aside.

2. Beat the butter at medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugars, fleur de sel and ground vanilla bean (or vanilla extract) and continue beating at medium speed for 1-2 minutes (do not let the butter get warm). Add the sifted dry ingredients and using your hands mix just until combined. The dough will look very crumbly and that’s fine. Work the dough as little as possible. Toss in the chocolate and quickly mix (again, you can use your hands) to incorporate.

3. Turn the dough out onto a clean and smooth work surface, and divide in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into a rough 4-cm (1 ½-inch) thick log (to make sure there is no air channel in the log, flatten it once or twice and roll it up from one long side to the other; work fast to prevent the butterfat from melting). Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours, preferably overnight. (Wrapped airtight, the logs can be chilled for up to 3 days and frozen for up to 1 month.)

4. Pre-heat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

5. With a sharp and thin-bladed knife, cut logs into 1-cm (1/2 -inch) thick slices. (If the cookies break, just squeeze the broken-off part back onto the cookie.) Place the cookies on the prepared sheets, leaving at least about 2-cm (about 1-inch) space between them. Bake for 12 minutes and only 1 sheet at a time. The cookies will not look done nor will they be firm, but that’s fine, that’s the way they roll. Let the cookies rest on the sheet until they are warm. Repeat with the second sheet of the cookies. Keep in an airtight container for up to 1 week.