Maria Robledo sent us this iPhone photo of a recipe she’d made by improvising with one of Sally’s and marrying it one a friend taught her. The Sally recipe is a endlessly mutable Brown Sugar Butter Cookie dough made with so much butter that it is SHORT, that is, it melts in your mouth. Maria pressed it into a tart tin and baked it until it was golden. Then she cut up some strawberries she’d bought at the farmer’s market – small, sweet REAL summer berries. She put some in a pan with a bit of sugar, a tad of fine tapoica for thickening, lemon juice and water over low heat to “melt them”. Then she mixed the warm, slightly thickened berry mixture into raw berries. She sliced her tart shell into slices, and spooned the berries on top. Voila, a perfect freeform tart.

Or you can take any summer berry – raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries – throw them into a saucepan with a little sugar, lemon juice and a tablespoon or two of water, and cook them just until they collapse a bit and the juices run. Spooned at the last minute over the cookie dough shell, they are like the warm, messy inside of a pie. Serve with whipped cream, creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.

Here’s the recipe for Brown Sugar Butter Cookies, and the method for forming it into tart shells toward the end. The cookies themselves make a fabulous house gift.

Ethereal Brown Sugar Butter Cookies 

This versatile dough can be formed in a variety of shapes, for a variety of purposes: wedges, squares or rounds can serve as cookies, or as “top crusts” for freeform tarts. Pressed into a pie tin, the dough makes a great tart base. You can also flavor the dough in any number of ways: with powdered Earl Gray Tea, grated lemon, orange or lime zest, a dash of nutmeg, cinnamon or clove. A light dusting of sea salt on top of the cookies before the bake is spectacular. You’ll find a big riff on this cookie theme in The Improvisational Cook.

Makes about thirty 1 1/2-inch round cookies, or 12 to 16 wedges or squares.

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
A scant 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon orange flower water (optional)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Prepare the dough. Preheat the oven to 325’. Arrange the oven racks in the lower half of the oven. In a food processor, combine the butter, sugar, salt, vanilla and orange flower water, if desired, and process to a light, fluffy paste, 20 to 30 seconds. Remove the lid and add the flour and cornstarch. Pulse until the dough begins to clump together and the mixture is fairly uniform, 8 to 10 times. Gather the dough together into a rough ball, kneading a few times if necessary.  (You can also mix the dough by hand or with an electric mixture).

Alternative 1: Form the dough into a freezable log, chill, slice into rounds and bake. Form the soft dough into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Gently roll up the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate to firm up until ready to use, at least 1 hour.

Using a thin knife, slice the chilled log crosswise into 1/8-inch thick slices and arrange them 1 1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. (If the dough is very soft, place the cookie sheet in the freezer 10 minutes to firm up.)  Bake until the edges are just beginning to brown, about 20 minutes.  With a thin metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack.  Cool completely before packing into a tin.

Alternative 2 (quicker method): Press into a pan, bake and slice into shortbread-style wedges or squares.  Press the dough into a 9-inch or 10-inch tart pan, preferably with a removable bottom, or an 8 or 9-inch square pan to cut into wedges or squares after baking. Prick the dough at two-inch intervals with the tines of a fork. Place the pan on a baking sheet and freeze for10 to 15 minutes.

Bake until the edges are just beginning to brown and the center is no longer puffy, 30 to 35 minutes for 9-inch round or 8-inch square, about 25 to 30 minutes for 10-inch round or 9-inch square. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and cool for 5 minutes. With a thin, sharp knife, carefully cut the shortbread rounds into wedges; cut squares into squares, rectangles or strips.

You can refrigerate the dough up to 2 weeks or freeze to 2 months; thaw in the refrigerator 8 hours before using.

Shortbread Pastry Shells and Lids for Tarts
Unbaked Ethereal Brown Sugar Butter Cookie dough makes an easy-to-work pastry dough for dessert tarts. To give it a more neutral, less caramel flavor, use half granulated sugar and half light brown sugar in the dough.

Make 1 recipe Ethereal Brown Sugar Butter Cookie dough; do not chill. Press the dough into a 10-inch tart tin with a removable bottom, building up the edge slightly to make a 1/4-inch high rim. Or make six individual tartlet shells by pressing the dough into 4-inch tart tins, building up the edges in the same way. Chill 1/2 hour before filling and /or baking.  To bake without a filling, bake in a 325′ until the edges are just beginning to brown, 30 to 35 minutes; cool before filling.

To make individual pastry lids for freeform tarts, don’t build up the edge when you press the dough into tartlet tins; just bake them as flat disks you can pop out of the tins and use to top individual portions of cooked fruit, along with some whipped cream.

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