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Cook Story: The Perfection of Butter Cookies

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from Fine Cooking #116, pp. 28-29

Essay by Dorie Greenspan

I chatted with MME Fabré in a Parisain café, followed her home for dinner, and have been grateful to her with every French butter cookie I’ve eaten since.

Featured Recipe:

Vanilla-Bean Sablé Cookies
Vanilla-Bean Sablé Cookies

Dinner was decades ago. I was recently married, had just graduated from college, and was alone in Paris. I was about to start graduate school and, while I’d begun teaching myself to cook the day after I married Michael, it would be another 10 years before I would even begin to imagine food as a life. Had I been a little less lonely—or a little less eager to practice my French—I just might have ignored Madame as she peered over my shoulder, shamelessly reading my journal. And I might not have responded when she exclaimed so loudly that heads turned, “Ah, you write English! My niece wants to learn the language and marry an American. Come home for dinner!”

Mme Fabré and her apartment overlooking the Seine were as eccentric as her invitation: There were books everywhere, music boxes, too, and the small, low-ceilinged dining room was dominated by a life-size carrousel horse. (As I ate, I could reach over and pat its nose.) Madame and her niece had dressed for dinner, and had I known she was serving a poulet de Bresse— or had I even known what that pedigreed, astronomically expensive chicken was—I, too, would have gotten dolled up to honor it.

The chicken was the main course; actually, the only course. It had been oven-roasted in a copper pot with carrots and potatoes, and with each bite I took, Mme Fabré would tell me a little something about the ingredients.  The carrots had been grown in sand, the potatoes grew near sea water—if you concentrate, you can taste the salt, she told me—and everything had been basted over and over again with butter.

With the mention of butter, Madame went to the kitchen, returning with a cracked pottery plate holding a hunk of it. “Here,” she said, “I insist that you taste it.” She cut off a healthy pat and served it to me straight off the knife. “Good butter is the most important ingredient in the kitchen. You must never use anything but butter, and it must always be the very, very best you can buy.” If the Delphic oracle had spoken, I’m sure her voice wouldn’t have been any more authoritative (or memorable) than Mme Fabré’s.

Dessert was simple: a plate of sablés, French shortbread cookies made with Madame’s best butter. And again, Madame talked me through each bite. “Can you taste the butter? Can you taste it?” she prodded. “And the texture? See how the cookie is both tender and crumbly? You get that from the sugar and the butter, of course.” A wiser me would have asked for the recipe; instead, I just ate as many cookies as I could without seeming overly greedy.

I walked back to my hotel knowing that the evening was pivotal, but not really understanding why. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I had the twin epiphanies that should have come instantly. At some point, I realized how ahead of her time (or perhaps, how classically French) Madame was in her great concern for ingredients. She could have been my Alice Waters before Alice Waters, had I been more aware.

And then there were the cookies, the plain, absolutely perfect butter cookies.

Back then, in my earnest efforts to teach myself to cook and bake, I judged my progress by how successful I could be with the most complicated recipes. I cooked dishes that took entire weekends to prepare and baked cakes with frills and swirls and as many layers as the Empire State Building has stories. I was too unsophisticated to understand simplicity.

I still spend weekends cooking and I still make the occasional extravagant cake (never shortchange the pleasures of drama), but day to day, season to season, a sablé is my steady sweet. I think I’ve made every sablé possible, from chocolate to coconut to espresso to all-American oatmeal. Not one of them is the same as Mme Fabré’s—I gave up the quest to figure out that recipe long ago—but all of them remind me of that evening.

This vanilla-bean sablé is among my favorites. There’s nothing to it, really. Just channel Mme Fabré: Buy fresh butter, the best you can find (if you can track down a high-fat butter, preferably French, this is the time for it); use vanilla beans that are plump, pliable, and dizzyingly fragrant; close your eyes, take a taste, dream of Paris, and say, “Merci, Madame.” It’s what I do all the time.


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