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How-To

Holiday Cookies for Grownups

No sprinkles, no icing, just a sophisticated quartet of delicate French butter cookies

Fine Cooking Issue 30
Photos: Mark Ferri
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Chocolate-chip cookies fresh from the oven—who hasn’t succumbed to devouring them straight off the baking sheet, the chocolate still melted and gooey? The French, that’s who. At Payard Pâtisserie, the French bakery where I worked in New York, none of my French colleagues had ever had a homemade chocolate-chip cookie.

Talk about a cultural divide. I teased my co-workers mercilessly about their deprived childhoods. I brought them oatmeal raisin cookies and snickerdoodles, introduced them to Oreos and Girl Scout Thin Mints, determined to bridge the gap.

In return, my French friends taught me a whole range of French-style cookies, called petits fours secs (translated, this means small cakes or cookies from the oven, unfrosted or unfilled). Not as homey and never as large as American cookies, petits fours secs (peh-tee FOOR seck) are subdued, polished, yet equally enticing. These butter cookies are perfect for when you want to end a meal with coffee and just a few sweets, or when you want to give charming homemade gifts.

Sophistication and simplicity in the same cookie

What ties this refined group of cookies together is that none are too sweet, all are small enough to eat in one or two bites, and, while they may seem fancier than, say, Toll House cookies, the doughs are all uncomplicated and easy to prepare. The basic method for all the cookies is the same, and it’s simple: cream the butter, slowly add the sugar until thoroughly combined, beat in the egg, and then fold in the remaining ingredients. At the pastry shop, we used almond flour in addition to all-purpose flour, but you’ll get excellent results using almonds that you finely grind in a food processor. Success lies in precision: careful measuring for consistent results, shaping the logs evenly so they slice into uniform shapes, chilling the buttery dough thoroughly so it doesn’t soften when you handle it, and rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking so all the cookies brown evenly. Another tip is to chill the sliced cookies before baking if they’re at all soft.

Bring the butter and eggs to room temperature. It’s also important that they’re both around the same temperature. If the butter is too soft and the eggs come straight from the refrigerator, the butter will harden into tiny specks during mixing and will look curdled. (Don’t panic if this happens: you’ll just have to mix a little longer until the batter smoothes out. And you’ll still get delicious cookies.)

Cream the butter thoroughly until it has softened and whitened. This can take up to five minutes, but it will ensure that the remaining ingredients blend easily into the butter. Scrape the bowl thoroughly during mixing; uncreamed flecks of butter in the dough will melt during baking and cause the cookies to lose their neat shape, spread into blobs, and bake unevenly.

As soon as the last ingredients are well incorporated, stop the mixer. Mixing any more than necessary means you run the risk of a less tender cookie.

Lightly flour both the work surface and the knife. Once the dough is shaped, chilled, and ready to slice, you want to be sure it doesn’t stick to the counter. If the dough does start to stick as you slice it, put it in the freezer for ten minutes or so to firm up.

Freeze the dough and bake what you need. These recipe yields are big (especially for the checkerboard cookies), which is helpful during holiday time. But if you don’t feel like baking huge amounts at a time, just freeze the shaped logs, defrost them in the refrigerator the night before you plan to bake, and then bake as much as you need.

Perfectly creamed butter is key to a smooth and workable dough.

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