If the French were to remain good at one thing and one thing only, I bet it would be baking. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that French bakeries have rightfully earned the gold medal as the best in the world.
And considering what a vast world French baking is and what a wide range of pastries it covers, it’s no surprise that sometimes even a few slight differences in the rigid process are enough to create an entirely new pastry.
Other times, the names may sound similar, but the pastries in question may not share any other characteristics.
In this article, we’ll be breaking down which of these categories three similarly named French pasties - Palet Breton, Sablé Breton, and Galette Bretonne - belong to.
What are Palets Bretons?
Palets Bretons are one of the most popular afternoon tea items in France. Traditionally, the term “Palet Breton” refers to a medium-sized thick and round golden-brown biscuit with a light and airy texture.
Ostensibly, this distinct visual earned the biscuit its name: in French, “Palet Breton” means “Breton Puck.” The biscuit reminded people of small cast discs used to play Shuffleboard (an old game originating in Medieval Europe, using cues to push heavy pucks around a narrow court). The name stuck.
The second part of the name, Breton, has nothing to do with their place of origin. These biscuits are purely French inventions. It refers to the specific type of butter initially used in the recipe. See, during the 16th century, butter in Bretagne (or Brittany, France’s northwesternmost region) acquired a few particular characteristics. Duchess Anne of Brittany freed the area from the salt tax, which allowed the butter churners to start adding Gueradin salt to their butter more freely. While the idea behind adding salt was to have it act as a preservative and prolong the butter’s shelf life, it had an unexpected side effect: the salt gave the butter a more complex flavor, making its soft milky flavor deeper and better pronounced.
Pastry chefs quickly cottoned on and started using the Breton butter in their creations. Over time, the butter acquired a reputation for being a particularly decadent ingredient, giving the pastries a more luxurious feel and taste. Lo and behold, the rest of Europe wasn’t far behind on the train, raising it to a pedestal.
While modern recipes make do with regular, non-Breton, salted butter all the time, the name has remained.
Here’s the kicker, though: sometimes Palet Bretons, primarily commercially produced Palet Bretons, may not necessarily look like thick airy pucks. They may be thinner, with a shinier surface, or less buttery. Very much, though not precisely, like another French cookie, Sablé.
How are Palets Bretons Made?
In theory, Palets Bretons’ recipe is relatively straightforward: the biscuits require only a few ingredients and some patience.
In practice, you may easily mess everything up and get Sablé Bretons or something in-between the two when you’re done. The recipe might be straightforward, but it’s meticulous in two aspects: 1) the ratio of ingredients used; 2) the cooking temperature and time.
It all starts with softened butter. Interestingly, the butter doesn’t necessarily need to be salted, unlike the original recipe (though the salt is added later to achieve the characteristic sweet-yet-salty flavor). But it does need to be “European-style butter,” one with higher fat and lower moisture content. The dough starts with egg yolks and caster (powdered) sugar being whisked together. The egg-sugar mixture is then combined with softened butter and beat until entirely smooth and homogenous, like custard.
In the end, the other dry ingredients are added: well-sifted flour and baking powder. Here’s the trick to good Palet Bretons: the baker shouldn’t overmix the dough. If it does, the biscuits won’t have their signature airy texture!
Once the dough is ready, it should be wrapped and refrigerated for 2 to 4 hours until fully solid and easy to handle. The cold dough is cut into thick discs (traditionally, between 1.5-2 inches wide) and baked at medium heat for about 20 minutes.
The most peculiar thing about Palet Bretons is that, while the recipes always highlight the ingredient ratio aspect, it still differs from recipe to recipe (not to mention, all major producers keep their signature recipes close to the chest)! Call it straightforward all you want, but pinning down the ideal ratio is, in the end, a matter of experimenting.
What Do Palets Bretons Taste Like?
Traditional Palet Bretons are supposed to have a very buttery flavor, with only a moderate sweetness level (some would even say the sweetness is an undertone, with the main flavor profile being more tender and neutral) and a distinct savory undertone (due to all the salt).
However, commercially packaged Palet Bretons tend to have a higher amount of sugar and can be on the sweeter side, closer in flavor to what’s expected of classic French butter cookies than to a US-style biscuit.
Best Uses for Palets Bretons:
Palet Bretons are traditionally supposed to be eaten as any other biscuit: by itself, only accompanied by a cup of coffee or tea.
However, nowadays, they seem to have become somewhat of a common choice for a dessert base at French patisseries and restaurants. While still not the most popular way of serving Palet Bretons, it’s become more likely to find it on the menu, topped with some cream patisserie and berries or with a thick layer of chocolate ganache.
What to Pair with Palets Bretons:
It all depends on 1) how salty your Palets Bretons are; 2) how you like the combination of sweet-and-salty flavors.
The most classic choice for a noticeably salty Palet Breton would be some sweet caramel or a layer of chocolate ganache. After all, both salted caramel and chocolate with sea salt have long become pastry staples.
Nutty flavors would be another good option: some almond butter or toasted hazelnuts with the chocolate would add depth and complexity to the dessert.
Or, if you find the level of saltiness neutral enough, just top the Palet off with some whipped cream and berries!
What are Sablés Bretons?
Sablés Bretons are classic French butter cookies. Or, to be more precise, they’re referred to as French butter cookies, while they’re closer to shortbread cookies in texture and flavor (yes, there’s a difference, more on that later).
Sablés Bretons are older than Palet Bretons. The original butter cookie was born in the 17th century in Sablé-Sur-Sarthe, a commune in the French region of Pays de la Loire (technically not Brittany, though they share a border).
Sablés Bretons are traditionally very thin, barely ¼-inch wide (and sometimes even narrower). They are supposed to be pale golden yellow in color and have a very homogenous, sometimes even glossy, surface (as opposed to classic Palets that are often dotted with small holes).
The main characteristic of the cookie is its texture: it’s supposed to be light but with a crunchy top and tender, sandy inside. In fact, its name is two-fold: Sablé in French means “sandy,” so the title refers both to the place of its origin and the main characteristic of the cookie!
(There’s also a popular legend that claims that they were named Sablé as an honor to Marquis de Sablé. In 1670, a pastry chef in the employment by Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, served the tender, crumbly shortbread cookies at a party the Prince was hosting for the Marquis. The Prince decided to name the new pastry after the Marquis as a way to honor him. The story is most likely apocryphal, though).
How are Sablés Bretons Made?
Sablés Bretons are not shortbread cookies in the sense that the recipe is primarily comprised of the same ingredients as Palet Bretons, and that means egg yolks. In contrast, traditional shortbread is supposed to be just one part sugar, two parts butter, and three/four parts flour.
But they have often been categorized as such anyway, as opposed to butter cookies. It’s because the recipe (and the texture) of Sablé cookies can, in the end, be closer to the formers’ than the latters’.
The difference between a butter cookie and a shortbread cookie is the butter-to-sugar ratio. Butter cookies are supposed to have a higher amount of sugar and be baked at a higher temperature. Shortbread cookies, on the other hand, contain more butter and are baked at lower temperatures.
Once again, you’ll find that there are recipes that adhere to butter cookie specifications (more sugar than butter, baked at a higher temperature) and shortbread cookie specifications (more butter than sugar, baked at a lower temperature). The bane of traditional recipes in action once again: the recipes vary between the bakers and often contradict in details.
It doesn’t help that large manufacturers tend to revise the recipes, giving them new spins to keep their brand unique. For example, technically, LU cookies’ Veritable Petit Beurre is a Sablé cookie variation! It’s a buttery, crumbly shortbread cookie from Pays de la Loire! But they’ve long become their own thing, hardly associated with Sablé cookies any more than any other butter cookie.
The main difference between the original process of making Sablé Bretons and Palet Bretons was the butter! While Palets were made with softened butter, Sablés were made with cold butter. The pastry chef started by mixing cold butter and flour, gradually adding other ingredients.
While the traditional way is still in occasional use, nowadays, a “hack” version of a recipe is more popular: i.e., use the same technique as the Palet Bretons, but 1) adjust the ratio as the recipe calls it; 2) do NOT add the baking powder to the mixture, so the cookies remain flat. This way of baking significantly cuts down on prep time and has become more common because of it.
What Do Sablés Bretons Taste Like?
Unlike the more subtle and neutral Palet Bretons, Sablés Bretons are a veritable explosion of flavor! Not only are they sweeter and with a more robust buttery taste, but they are commonly flavored with other ingredients, which adds to the overall flavor strength.
Lemon and orange zest are the most traditional flavoring ingredients when it comes to Sablé cookies, with Sablés au Citron frequently considered to be the first flavored variation of the classic recipe.
However, modern Sablé cookies can be flavored with a wide variety of ingredients, both frequently used in French baking (almonds, cocoa, coffee, etc.) and more novel (ex., matcha powder). Even using more savory ingredients, like jalapeno peppers or cheddar cheese, is not uncommon these days.
Best Uses for Sablés Bretons:
Traditionally, Sablé cookies are not used for anything other than their initial purpose: to be consumed as they are, with a cup of the hot beverage of your choice.
However, considering at heart they’re simply a type of shortbread, you can try using them to assemble other desserts that would typically use classic shortbread cookies, like assembling a mini icebox cake in a cup, using them in a trifle, or simply crumbling them on top of your ice cream bowl.
What to Pair with Sablés Bretons:
The best flavor pairings with Sablé cookies depend on the cookie flavor itself! Is the Sablé cookie just a simple butter cookie? Then it’ll work best with more tempered flavors like vanilla and fruits if you want the cookie flavor to remain noticeable.
More robustly flavored Sablés (citrus, coffee, chocolate cookies) will pair well with more robust flavors as well. Try classic combinations by pairing lemon and orange Sablés with coffee and chocolate or chocolate cookies with various nuts, for example.
What is Galette Bretonne?
Here comes the twist: Galette Bretonne isn’t a cookie at all.
Yes, Galette Cookies are a thing. We’ve even talked about the differences between French butter Palets and Galettes. But the French butter cookies that use galette in the name are typically Galette au Beurre.
Galette means “flat cake” in French, and it’s a word used to describe a variety of French pastries, which can lead to confusion unless you’re well-versed in different galette types or have contextual clues of which pastry exactly the conversation refers to.
A simple Galette, without any further additions to the name, typically describes an open pie with a buttery crust. The filling can be both sweet (like sliced fruit) or savory (sliced vegetables, cheese with herbs, etc.).
Galettes Campinoises is the name for a type of waffle popular in Belgium. Only unlike traditional Belgian waffles, galette waffles are supposed to have a hard and crunchy top with buttery insides.
Galette au Beurre literally means “butter flat cake,” i.e., “butter cookie.”
And the Galette Bretonne in question is a thin, savory crepe made with buckwheat flour. Galette Bretonnes are typically much larger in diameter than traditional sweet crepes and are most often served with other savory ingredients, like eggs, cheese, meat, fish, etc.
The Modern Use of the “Palets Bretons” vs. “Sablés Bretons”: Have They Become the Same?
If you look at the box of cookies branded Palet Bretons but find they bear little resemblance to the biscuits described above - don’t be surprised.
While most manufacturers still differentiate between Palet Bretons and Sablés Bretons, they have become somewhat lax with Palet Breton as the term. Now it’s not necessarily used to describe the thick and airy biscuits. Modern Palet Bretons are a variety of French butter cookies with an uneven crust that is thicker than a traditional Sablé cookie is supposed to be.
So no, Palets Bretons and Sablés Bretons are still not the same. Sablés are still supposed to adhere to stricter aesthetic standards with their even surface, thin form, and tender and sandy texture. But Palet Breton is a commonly used name for round (i.e., puck-shaped) butter cookies of medium thickness, some of which don’t necessarily resemble the original biscuit all that much.