With all things Continental still in my mind and a new baking tray, my thoughts turned to making madeleines. These are small French teacakes, with a shell pattern on one side and a “bump” on the other. The apparently originate from the Lorraine area in north-east of France, which makes the use of the shell shape all the more curious (it’s, eh, rather far from the sea).
Madeleines are perhaps most famous for their appearance in a short story by Proust in The Remembrance of Things Past. It is entitled “The Cookie”, although it actually relates to madeleines, in which the author describes the effect that tasting a piece of the cake has on his memories. It is not the look or smell of the cake (rather annoying for the person who went to all the effort to shape them), but the taste of the cake when dipped in a little warm tea and then eaten. Read it here.
Madeleines are small and delicate, usually flavoured with orange. The method might seem a little daunting at first – whip eggs and sugar, then add flour, then add cooled melted butter, allow to chill, then put into special moulds and watch like a hawk as they cook – but once you have tried them, they are quite simple. If you are keen to start making little French teatime treats, then the madeleine will also prove to be easier to master and generally a lot less fickle than the macaron. They also provide some scope to play with the recipe – lemon in place of orange, or use ground nuts in place of one-third of the flour (look closely – you can see the ground pistachio in the ones I made).
For me, the tricky thing has always been using a madeleine pan and getting successful results. I have – until this week – used a teflon-coated tray, and usually find that about half of the madeleines split in two, with half of each cake clinging to the not-so-non-stick surface, and all this in spite of generous use of butter, non-stick spray, each tried with and without dustings of flour. Well, this time, I used my new silicone tray, and each madeline came out with no effort. Each had a perfect, smooth finish. If you want to make madelines, buy a silicone mould – I can’t be enthusiastic enough about it!
Now, time to sit down with a madeleine, a cup of tea, and dip a piece of the former into the latter. Believe me, it tastes good!
To make 18 madeleines:
• 85 grams butter
• 2 eggs
• 80g grams caster sugar
• Zest of 1 orange
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 110g grams plain flour (you can substitute 1/3 of the flour with ground nuts)
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• Large pinch salt
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Put to one side and allow to cool.
Put the eggs, caster sugar, orange zest and vanilla extract in a bowl. Whip for 5 minutes until the mixture becomes light and thick.
Combine the flour, salt and baking powder and sift. Add the flour mixture to the eggs and stir lightly with a spatula until combined.
Add the cooled liquid butter and incorporate using a spatula. Let the batter rest in the fridge for 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place spoonfuls of the batter into madeleine moulds and bake for around 8-10 minutes (or as long as it takes for “bumps” to appear in the middle of the cakes). Reduce the heat to 190°C and bake until the cakes are lightly browned (another 5 minutes).
Once cooked, remove from the oven. When the silicone tray is cool enough to work with, press each madeleine out the the tray. Move to a cooling rack, and dust the shell side of each with icing sugar.
If you are feeling more ambitious, I have seen some recipes that use brown butter. This is normal butter that has been melted then cooked briefly so that the fat and solids separate and any water evaporates (with a rather spectacular fit of hissing and spitting), and the butter solids turn brown and there is am aroma of toasted nuts. You then strain the butter, and are left with butter that has a rich, nutty flavour. Just another way to add an extra flavour dimension to your baking.
Worth making? The only fussy bit here is actually getting hold of the proper tray. The rest is quite easy and uses items from the store cupboard. The result, however, is really excellent. The cakes are quite firm, and as Proust did, can be easily dunked into warm tea. Try it, experience the wonderful flavour, and you will be happy you tried making these yourself. I think I will be making these regularly as a companion to post-dinner coffee.