Thursday, November 10, 2005

French Breakfast

About four years ago I spent a summer working at La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, France. Anne Willan, the owner and founder of the school, is a prolific writer and publishes a new book almost every year with the help of various recipe testers and editorial assistants who clamor for the opportunity to spend a summer in France. She has a wealth of arcane cooking information (do you know the traditional garnish for babas au rhum? Well, do you?) and is a demanding and exacting boss. I won't sugarcoat it--some of the chores were terribly dull and aggravating. Other chores, like picking fruit from the ancient potager (made famous by Amanda Hesser's book The Cook and the Gardener) and turning it into jams and jellies, were great satisfying work.

Though Anne and her husband know and like great food, it always appeared that they had very few vices. While we stagieres would sneak pieces of chocolate and potato chips, Anne stuck to the basic French doctrine: lots of vegetables, some cheeses and the occasional dessert, red wine and long walks after lunch. But being British, she did love her shortbread. Every week one of the kitchen minions would be assigned the duty of producing a weeks worth of French sable cookies, which we would then individually wrap and give to Anne. She would keep them in her bedroom and she and her husband would each eat one every morning. We all adopted the habit of a sable with our morning coffee, though often times ours would be the packaged variety made by Bonne Maman. The French word sable refers to the texture of these cookies, sandy, meaning they are so tender that the crumble delicately when you bite into them.

I got thinking about all this because I bought a shortbread cookie from Berkeley's Cheeseboard Collective yesterday, thinking that I would have it for dessert. But I forgot about it, only to remember this morning when I saw the butter stained bag on the counter. The cookie, alongside my morning cup of coffee, took me back 6,000 miles and 4 years to a big chateau in a little French town. It remains one of the finest breakfasts imaginable.

Anne's basic sable recipe:

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
7 tablespoons butter

Sift the flour onto the work surface and make a well in the center. Put the salt, sugar, egg yolks and vanilla in the well. Pound the butter with a rolling pin to soften it, add it to the other ingredients into the well and work them with the fingers of one hand until throughly mixed and the sugar is partially dissolved. Using a pastry scraper, gradually draw in the flour then work the dough until smooth. Chill at least 30 minutes (you can keep the dough in the refridgerator for up to a week, provided it is well wrapped.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1/4 inch and cut out shapes using a round or decorative cutter. Transfer them to a baking sheet and brush with an egg wash or a little heavy cream. Bake them in a 375 degree oven until lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

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