Like most French patisserie the true origin of the small cakes known as madeleines is lost in the mists of time. However, also like most French patisserie, there is creation myth, in fact two. It’s generally agreed that they were named after a cook called Madeleine Paulmier, but one version has her living in the 19th century and the other has her working in the 18th century, for Stanisław Leszczyński, ex-King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine, and father-in-law to King Louis XV. Leszczyński subsequently introduced them to the court at Versailles ensuring their entrance into the canon of French cuisine.
The second story rings true, because the town of Commercy, within the Duchy of Lorraine, claims them as their own a claim supported by the early 20th century writer Marcel Proust who mentions them in his classic À la recherche du temps perdu. ‘Mentions’ in fact is an understatement, since Proust devotes no less than 1,043 words singing the praises of this little cake, which he finds a most sensual experience.
As Proust puts it, the cakes are baked in a special tin that makes them look as if they were ‘molded in a fluted scallop shell’. The top of the madeleine is supposed to rise dramatically in the middle which Proust describes as ‘richly sensual under the severe and pious pleating’. If you look the photographs, I think you can see what this typically French man was thinking about. One side is like a ridge bishop’s mitre, while the other has a baby bump.
The baby bump is formed by creating a ‘thermal shock’ achieved by cooking the cakes in a very hot oven and then lowering the temperature for the rest of the cooking. The cooking time is very short, which combined with a process of resting the batter, contributes to a very light but moist cake which can actually be heard to sigh when you bite into it. You, see, I am turning into Proust.
To make madeleines properly you need a special mold, which is available all over France, quelle surprise, but also widely available elsewhere. Here is a link to, for example, amazon.com. You can flavor the madeleine with vanilla, orange water, or as is traditional lemon zest. Whatever you choose the flavor should be subtle and delicate just suggested in the background to the, sumptuous, elegant sponge.
The recipe below is a classic one, but in future weeks I plan to revisit the madeleine perhaps taking it to some very surprising places. But for now, sit back and enjoy the taste and perhaps compare it to Proust’s experience.
Active time: 20 mins
Total time: 1 hr
100g / 1/2 cup caster sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 220°C / 425°F.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan and let it cool for about five minutes.
3. Remove the zest of the lemon using a potato peeler; chop into small pieces using a sharp knife.
4. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a bowl with a whisk The mixture should thicken slightly and be very frothy.
5. Add the flour and baking powder and mix with the whisk until incorporated. Then add the butter and the lemon zests. The result will be a batter which falls off the whisk in ribbons.
6. Leave the batter to rest for 30 minutes. During this time you can grease the molds with butter.
7. Using a piping bag, half fill the molds with the batter. Then bake for 4 minutes. Lower the oven to 200°C / 400°F and bake for a further 8 minutes.
8. Leave the madeleines to cool a little before removing them from the molds.
|The top side of the madeleines showing the ‘baby bump’.