A house without a cookie is a sad place indeed, I thought as I pulled the vanilla sugar from its drawer, got the hunk of unsalted butter from the fridge, and began to measure flour and salt. I had a hankering for a sablé, a tender butter cookie ideal to offer to the unexpected guest, and to have on hand for nibbling plain, with tea or – best – dipping in coffee.
I mixed up the dough and as it firmed up in the fridge, I returned to work to find in an email the following question: “Susan, what exactly is vanilla sugar and where do I find it?”
This, I thought, is a sign. Here I’ve just measured out vanilla sugar – its perfume lingers on my hands – and I’m once again confronted with this oft-posed question. It’s time to dispel the mystery.
To make vanilla sugar, all you need is sugar and a vanilla bean. I flavor five pounds of sugar, because I bake all the time and don’t want to be caught short. I recommend you do the same. Put the sugar in an airtight container, stick one or two vanilla beans in it, close it up and forget about it for one week. When you open your jar, you’ll be flooded with the aroma of vanilla, and your sugar will be infused with its flavor. That is all there is to it. Now, you have an ample supply to flavor cookies, cakes, custards, and your morning coffee if you like.
I rarely add a brand new vanilla bean to my sugar, though, because I use vanilla beans regularly to make custards for ice cream, syrups for fruit. Once those are made, I carefully rinse and dry the vanilla bean, which is still full of aroma, and stick it in my sugar jar. I may have up to ten beans in the sugar at the same time – the more, the merrier. When you notice that a vanilla bean has turned light brown and dried to a brittle stick, remove it from the sugar – it has nothing left to give.
You can make vanilla brown sugar too, exactly the same way. The following recipe calls for vanilla confectioners’ sugar – I make my own by grinding vanilla sugar in a coffee grinder kept specifically for this purpose.
With vanilla sugar on hand, your pastries will rise to new heights. Does vanilla sugar replace vanilla extract? Generally, yes (except in chocolate chip cookies, where I use both!).
SABLES – NORMANDY SAND COOKIES
LES SABLES DE NORMANDIE
These tender, melt-in-your mouth cookies will become a staple in your repertoire. They go wonderfully with a fruit dessert, after dinner, and they make a perfect afternoon snack with tea or coffee. Make and freeze the dough – it will keep well for several months.
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons (13 ounces;400g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (140g) vanilla confectioner’s sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3-3/4 cups (500g) all-purpose flour
Pinch of sea salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
For rolling the sablés:
½ cup (100 g) vanilla sugar
1. In a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, mix the butter until it is soft and pale yellow. Add the confectioners’ sugar and mix well. Add the egg and mix until it is blended.
2. Sift the flour, the salt and the baking powder onto a piece of parchment paper and add to the butter and sugar mixture and mix well. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into six pieces. Roll each piece into a log that measures 1-inch (2.5cm) in diameter. Sprinkle the vanilla sugar on a flat work surface, and roll each log in the sugar to coat it evenly. Wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Cut the logs into 1/4-inch (.75 cm) thick rounds, and set them on the prepared baking sheet, leaving about ½-inch between each sablé. Bake in the center of the oven until they are golden at the edges, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer them to wire racks to cool. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Makes about 7 dozen sablés