How To Make Shortbread Crust (Pâte Sablée)

Pastry chef Tyler Atwell's secret weapon is also his simplest move

Chef Tyler Atwell fills the pastry case at Lafayette Grand Café & Bakery in NYC with glossy banana caramel cakes and éclairs in flavors like sweet potato with toasted meringue. Sleek bonbons are filled with fresh mint or fig and balsamic ganache. The desserts on his café menu come plated with details of geometric precision that'd make any art major jealous.

But the secret weapon recipe he pulls from the freezer in a pinch? A simple pâte sablée (see the recipe).

Of the three basic French tart doughs (the others being savory pâte brisée and sweet pâte sucrée), Atwell describes sablée as the pâte with the softest crumb, praising its high quantity of butter and low ratio of eggs. Pâte sablée uses the creaming method, combining confectioners' sugar with butter, almond flour and salt, then whole eggs and finally flour until the ingredients just pull together into a dough. Once chilled and baked, the buttery flavor bursts through the sandy (the translation of sablée) texture that makes for crisp tarts shells and buttery biscuit cookies.

Whereas some recipes might use only the egg's yolk to help achieve this, in his experience, "this gets touchy," he says. "The dough gets so soft and sandy that lining tart shells becomes complicated, depending on your experience or how many you're lining at once. Or, for a bakery setting where a tart will sit for hours before someone takes it home to eat it, you don't want a dough that softens too much."

The Goal with Gluten

Atwell explains how gluten is both the friend and enemy here. Gluten creates elasticity, which makes for a pliable dough, so you want a certain amount to develop. But too much, and the final product loses its buttery crumb. Because gluten develops with moisture, recipes aim to limit liquid. But rather than use yolks and then pull the dough together with the tiniest touch of water, Atwell finds a happy medium with whole eggs, which give him consistency and workability. He then continues with a process that keeps gluten in check so that his sablée rolls out flawlessly and retains its sandy grain.

From Fridge to Freezer to Fridge

To keep gluten from developing too much, sablée dough must be alternatively chilled between mixing, rolling and baking. This makes it an ideal dough for freezing, too: Mix a batch, divide it into as many portions as you'd like, press them into disks and double-wrap them in plastic. Then, wrap them in a layer of foil for extra insurance: "Smells tend to be strong in home freezers," Atwell warns, "and these permeate plastic wrap." The dough can stay frozen and ready for up to a month. A day before baking, just move it from freezer to fridge until it's soft again.

Rolling Tips

Atwell advises to roll the dough between two sheets of parchment, rather than on a floured surface. This keeps the dough pliable without changing its structure. "If you add flour, it's not the end of the world," he says. "Just keep brushing off the excess." Roll to the desired thickness, then return once again to the fridge for 30 minutes. This chilling repetition is vital: First, the dough has softened from the rolling, making it hard to move to a pan or cleanly cut into shapes. Second, that gluten has once again developed and needs to relax.

"If you were to cut into shapes right away, they're more likely to shrink upon baking. If you bake the tart shell, there's more chance the edges will fall," he says. "The chilling part is important in all of these steps."

What to Make

Once the dough is chilled again, you're ready to sablée. Here are some of Atwell's favorite ways to put this dough to work.

Sweet or Savory Tart

The most classic application is (obviously) a tart. But being a sandy dough, this has a tendency to tear when being molded into a metal fluted pan. But here's where gluten is forgiving: Unlike patches made on more elastic piecrusts, butter melts into these mistakes—fill any rips with scraps, and no one will be the wiser.

After its final chill, the shell needs to blind-bake, weighted down with either pie weights or dry beans so that the inside shell is crisp for wet fillings to come—or baked through for fillings that don't bake at all. Blind-bake for 20 minutes until the edges start to brown. Remove the weights, and either return to the oven until baked through (for fillings that don't require baking) or allow to cool before continuing with a quiche or other preferred filling.

Here's a pro tip from Atwell: "With doughs like this, if we're going to fill them with anything that has a lot of moisture, we brush the shell with chocolate first. The fat in the chocolate creates a moisture barrier and helps the crust texture stay." For a chocolate tart, brush the shell with melted milk or dark chocolate, then allow it to set before filling. For fruit or pudding tarts, use white chocolate.

Fruit and Cream Tart

For a classic fruit tart, combine pastry and whipped creams, fill, and top with fresh fruit. "You can make it even more basic and use pudding mix," he says. "Mix some whipped cream with pudding, add fresh fruit on top, and people are going to be very impressed."

Chocolate Pudding Pie

Swap the almond flour for cocoa, then continue the tart process. Fill with ganache, crémeux, chocolate mousse or a quick chocolate pudding lightened and topped with whipped cream. 

Shortbread, Many Ways

"You'll find almonds everywhere in French pastry," Atwell, who likes how they contribute flavor while not altering texture, says of his favored flavoring component. "This slight elevation and complexity brings up the flavor of the overall pastry."

For basic shortbread cookies, roll the dough to a one-quarter-inch thickness. Then chill, cut into rectangles and bake on parchment or baking sheets until just coloring at the edges. From there, anything goes. Cut into rounds or various shapes, glaze or sugar the tops, or use to sandwich ganache or cream fillings. Have fun with the flavor profile by substituting the almond flour for equal parts pistachio, peanut or hazelnut flour. For a citrus hit, add the zest of two lemons when making the dough. And for a floral variation, add one teaspoon of rose water, then either mix crumbled dehydrated rose petals into the dough or sprinkle them on top.

For a sweet with a slightly green tinge perfect for spring, swap in pistachio flour. Bake into desired shapes, cool, then spread with a glaze made of lemon juice and confectioners' sugar whisked together. "The fattiness of pistachios and the acidity of lemon are particularly well matched," Atwell promises.

Cheesecake Cookie Crust

Bake (or buy) individual cheesecakes and freeze. Using a cookie cutter, cut out sablée rounds that fit the bottom of the cakes, bake and cool. With plenty of time before serving, defrost the cheesecakes directly on top of their buttery edible cookie boards. "It adds a different texture than your traditional cheesecake crust, but doesn't require a huge knife to cut through," he says. 

Tarte Tatin

For a classic tarte tatin with all the usual buttery sweetness but a bit more crunch, swap the puff pastry for a sablée crust. Cut out a circle large enough to cover a cast-iron skillet, bake on parchment or a baking mat, and cool. Then, continue your favorite tarte tatin recipe up through until the fruit is fully caramelized. Place the cookie on top of the cooked fruit and invert onto your serving plate.

Sablée Streusel

Roll the dough out to one-quarter of an inch and place the entire length, uncut, onto a sheet tray. Put it in the oven, and every five minutes or so, break or stir it into a crumble. Bake until pieces resemble large crumbs or chunks of golden-brown dough, then cool completely. Sprinkle on ice cream or baked fruit for a buttery, crunchy finish.