What dessert or sweet treat defines Paris? The internet is littered with lists, debates rage, and more often than not, the macaron is crowned king (or queen, perhaps not an enviable role given Paris’ history). I would argue the madeleine, quietly observing from the wings, deserves its moment to shine.
Delicious and beautiful and delicate as they are, macarons are also known for their fussiness and fanciness; they have a notorious reputation for tempermentality should you take on the challenge of making them yourself. Madeleines are confident in their simplicity, needing nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar or basic sugar glaze.
Madeleines, like Paris, have a bit of je ne sais quoi about them, just enough to make things interesting, but not intimidating if approached with the right attitude. Madeleines are, in fact, very approachable and not particularly complicated–you probably have every ingredient in your cupboard or fridge.
But they require a bit of dedication and a dedicated pan (madelelines are not madeleines if they’re baked in cupcake tins), a little patience, and some home-cook magic to create their iconic little bump. Madeleines also will not wait for you; once baked, their window of perfection is short, and it’s really best to cede to their schedule for the best experience–you’ll really be glad you did.
The buttery, lemony, sweet little cakes themselves are pillow-soft but sturdy enough to stand up to a dunk in a cup of tea (memorably so, if Marcel Proust is any authority). If you look at a macaron sideways, its delicate shell might crack and crumble. The madeleines traditional shell shape is their one nod to decoration, but even that is relatively simple by necessity–too intricate and the detail is lost or they stick to the pan.
On the other hand, maybe the madeleine is best left out of the spotlight to be enjoyed by those who know what to look for. Maybe it doesn’t need a chain of ultra-high-end stores, fancy boxes, or a cult following, but just a pretty little plate and a pot of tea at a beat-up wooden table surrounded by friends and good conversation. Sounds like perfection to me.
And simply because no discussion of the madeleine would be complete without it:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
While I’m of the Alton Brown school of thought when it comes to kitchen uni-taskers, a pretty little madeleine pan is just such a fun thing to have. This recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking Chez Moi works wonderfully, though my favorite part is the glazing method. The last little burst of heat sets the sugar to a clear, shiny, ever-so-slightly crunchy coating that’s just the right amount of fancy for this simple little cake.
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of fine salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 lemon, zested and juice reserved for glaze
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons milk
1 cup powdered sugar, for dusting or glaze
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a larger bowl, rub the sugar and lemon zest together until the sugar is a very pale yellow and very fragrant (your fingertips will also smell and feel wonderful). Whisk in the eggs by hand until the mixture is well-combined and a slightly lighter shade of yellow; add the vanilla and honey and whisk to combine.
Add half of the flour mixture to the eggs and sugar and fold it in with a rubber spatula; when it’s nearly incorporated, add the other half of the flower and repeat just until there is no dry flour left. Fold in the butter, then the milk until the batter is shiny and smooth. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the top of the batter and refrigerate at least three hours or overnight. Put your madeleine pan in the freezer as well.
An hour before you’re ready to bake the madeleines, butter and flour your pan (even if it’s nonstick). Fill the shells about 3/4 full of the batter and return the pan to the fridge for an hour.
While the batter is chilling, place a heavy metal baking sheet on the middle rack of your oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees. When you’re ready to bake, take the madeleine pan directly from the fridge and place it on the now-hot baking sheet. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of one comes out clean–and if they get nice big bumps, so much the better.
Take the pan from the oven and immediately remove the madeleines (whacking the pan on the counter is a satisfying way to do this, but coaxing them out with a butter knife also works) to a cooling rack. (If you’re glazing them, turn the oven up to 500 degrees.)
While the madeleines cool, whisk the lemon juice into a shallow bowl filled with the powdered sugar a teaspoon at a time until it’s the consistency of cream. Dip either side of the madeleines in the glaze to coat and place them, glaze-side-up back on the cooling rack set over another sheet pan (ideally one with sides so the cooling rack can’t slide off).
When they’re all glazed, place the cooling rack and sheet pan in the oven. Don’t leave! Watch them through your oven window and as soon as you see the glaze bubble (1 to 2 minutes), take them out and take the cooling rack off the hot sheet pan. Cool before serving and eat, ideally, the day they’re made.