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Iconic Parisian Butter Cookies—With a Subtle (But Tasty) Tweak

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In the world of artisanal sourdough bread baking, or at least French artisanal sourdough bread baking, there is one name to rule them all: Poilâne. If you are a fan of hearty, dense loaves and French gastronomie, you may have heard of the legendary bakery. I myself stumbled upon it in the same place I made all of my Parisian food and drink discoveries: David Lebovitz's website. In between writing about Poilâne's iconic bread (the crusty loaves are emblazoned with a "P"), the bakery's historic pedigree, and the bruléed tartines of goat's cheese and cured ham and paté served at their adjoining café, Lebovitz dropped in an offhand mention of a simple, barely-sweet butter cookie that sparked my interest:

When it’s time to go, the woman working behind the payment counter will offer you a little butter cookie from a baker’s basket, called a punition (punishment). Tip: The true fans pick the darkest ones and on the shelf where the bags are sold, there are always a few bags filled with what look to be practically burnt shortbread cookies. I like mine dark, but a few shades lighter.

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David Lebovitz on Paris and Patisseries by Marian Bull

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And so, of course, when I finally visited the City of Light and made my pilgrimmage to Poilâne, I was sure to taste one of these famed punitions. (Okay, fine, I took two.) It was eight years ago and I have basically not stopped thinking of them since.

With their crispy, caramelized edges and light sweetness tempered with a hint of salt, they were the perfect subdued hit of sugar to end my meal. This is not to say that these cookies are boring. Quite the opposite; their appeal lies in their simplicity. With only five ingredients and a pretty basic preparation, punitions still manage to be the platonic ideal of a butter cookie. They're not too sweet, not too heavy: they're just right.

Check out those golden edges!
Check out those golden edges! Photo by Rocky Luten

Many years later, I was visiting Root Bakery, a small, artisanal bread bakery specializing in heirloom grains, located on the fringe of Charleston, SC, and my eyes caught on a stack of perfectly-bronzed cookies in the telltale scalloped shape. They were the very same sablés which had so seduced me years before in a crowded bakery line. I asked for the recipe.

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Root's founder Chris Wilkins was indeed inspired by Poilâne's punitions, though he developed his own version of the cookies for his bakery. [Note: The name punitions® is trademarked by Poilâne, but Wilkins got around that by dubbing his version soleils because of their sunny shape.] Though he omits the customary egg included in most versions of punitions include, from his recipe, I found I preferred the texture with one, and added it back in (sorry, Chris!). One genius spin he shared which I did not omit is his addition flavored lemon sugar, which he makes by mixing granulated sugar and lemon zest before starting the cookie dough.

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This opened the gateway to a virtual black hole of flavor combinations. Why not sub in lime, orange, or grapefruit zest for the lemon? Or you could add a sprinkle of chili powder to the sugar, maybe even pulverized lavender or rose petals? Feel free to exchange the vanilla extract for almond, or sprinkle the top of the unbaked cookies with turbinado sugar for sparkle? If you're looking to make them a bit sweeter, you can always frost your punitions or use them sandwich some lemon curd, chocolate ganache (à la Smitten Kitchen), or dulce de leche?

Whatever you do with them, just make sure to keep your punitions in the oven until the edges are ringed in golden brown to achieve the toasty, caramelized flavor so coveted by the savvy Parisians who knew to go for the darkest cookies (thanks, Maillard reaction!).

If these praises I've sung have not convinced you to make punitions ( or soleils, or sablés, or those really good French butter cookies, or whatever else you want to call them), know that they freeze well for up to a month if kept in a tightly-sealed container. This means you can make a batch now and keep them on hand throughout the holidays to serve as a quick, elegant dessert, an accompaniment for afternoon coffee, or a late-night treat for guests, or family, or just yourself.

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Soleils (Parisian Butter Cookies)

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Makes around 50 cookies
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (170g)
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (140g)
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • zest of 1 lemon (or other citrus), if desired
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (4g)
  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour (300g)
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt (2g)
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What twist would you make (or have you made) on these simple butter cookies? Inspire us in the comments section!

Tags: butter, cookies, baking