Madeleines. That little French butter cake that most (non-French) people think of more as a cookie. They have a classy, literary reputation, having served as Proust's muse in his famous Remembrance of Things Past. Like most muses, however, madeleines appear to be simple but actually require a fair amount of patience and careful following of instructions. In the end, though, you are rewarded with a truly unique little cake, browned and crispy on the outside and spongy and soft on the inside. A perfect accompaniment to your afternoon cup of tea.
I don't think madeleines are for the inexperienced cook. They are a little tricky and need a fair amount of confidence to turn out just right. That said, I've tried to cover all the small details in this recipe so even if you're a fairly new cook, you can certainly still give these a try.
In this classic recipe, you would normally brown the butter slightly to add nuttiness. But browning butter just right can be challenging as it can quickly turn from nutty to burnt. If you're not confident with this skill, simply melt the butter and skip the browning part. Your madeleines will still be delicious.
Another barrier for making madeleines is that you need specific equipment, namely the scallop shell pans to bake them in, which is something most newer cooks don't usually have around. It's worth it to check around with your friends and family to see if someone has the pans to borrow. You can also pick them up at garage sales and they are available online though places like Amazon and Sur le Table. Try to get two as most recipes will make 2 dozen and it's a drag to have to wash and rebutter the pans between baking sessions. It also really helps to have a pastry brush to coat the pans with the butter and flour mixture.
I'm offering the classic lemon-scented madeleines here, but they do come in many flavors. Chocolate, rose, vanilla, lavender, and orange are all popular versions. Some people add mini chocolate chips and some people add a glaze, but I prefer them simple and straightforward.
Madeleines are delicious when eaten just from the oven and cooled until barely warm. They will keep for a day or two in an airtight container, but will start to lose that nice crisp texture after awhile. It's not the end of the world if this happens, but there is a reason those fancy restaurants used to send people home with fresh-from-the-oven madeleines: they are simply at their best when super fresh.
Many recipes say that the colder the dough is kept, the more likely it is that the madeleine will form the classic "bump" on the back. I experimented with freezing one baking tray and not freezing the other, and found that the madeleines baked on the unfrozen tray had a significantly smaller bump. So if that feature is important to you, be sure to freeze the pans and then get the filled pans in the oven right away. You can even go so far as to freeze the already filled pans for about 10 minutes before placing immediately in the oven.
The recipe below is loosely based on one from Julia Child. Like many madeleine recipes, it takes a slightly unusual approach in that you mix the flour, sugar, and eggs first and add the melted butter last. (In most baling, the butter is usually creamed with the sugar, then the eggs are added and the flour stirred in last.) The batter also needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour to chill and hydrate the four. You can leave it for longer than that, even overnight.
How to Make Classic French Madeleines
Makes 24 madeleines
What You Need
4 oz (1 stick), plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup white sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon, divided
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Powdered sugar (optional)
Small sauce pan
2 medium-sized mixing bowls
Measuring cups and spoons
2 madeleine pans
Small sieve for dusting with powdered sugar, optional
Melt the butter. Melt the butter in a small sauce pan. If you feel you can get it slightly toasty brown, go right ahead and do so by leaving it to bubble in the pan until it smells toasty and starts to color. Just remember that the butter will turn very quickly from toasty to burnt and that it will continue to color after it is off the heat unless you pour it into a new container. Spoon 3 tablespoons of butter into a small bowl or cup and set aside. Let the rest of the butter cool slightly.
Prepare the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients in separate bowls. In a medium bowl, whisk together one cup of the flour and the sugar, and set aside. In another medium bowl, whisk the two eggs with the vanilla, salt, lemon juice, and lemon zest until the eggs are frothy.
Combine the dry and wet ingredients. Add the eggs to the flour. Using a spatula, stir until just combined. Add the 4 ounces of melted butter and continue to stir. It may take a minute for the butter to blend into the mixture but do not over mix.
Rest the batter. Cover the bowl with a plate (or plastic wrap) and place in the refrigerator to rest at least one hour and up to overnight.
Prepare the pans. Add the remaining one tablespoon of flour to the 3 tablespoons reserved butter and stir to combine. Using a pastry brush, brush the interiors of the shells with the butter-flour mixture so that they are well coated. Place the pans in the freezer for at least an hour.
Preheat the oven and fill pans. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the batter from the refrigerator and one pan from the freezer. Fill each well in the madeleine pan with 1 tablespoon of the batter. Remove the other pan and fill in the same way.
Bake the madeleines. Place both pans on a baking sheet for easy handling and place in the oven. Check after 8 minutes and rotate plans. Check again 5 minutes later. The madeleines should be browning around the edges and puffed up a little in the middle. Using your forefinger, press lightly on the center hump -- when the madeleines are finished baking, it should spring back at your touch.
Cool and dust with sugar. Remove the madeleines from the oven and let cool for 2 minutes. Using a fork, gently loosen the madeleines from their molds and then tip the whole pan out onto a cooling wrack or tea towel. Once cool, dust lightly with powdered sugar and serve. If you are freezing or storing the madeleines, do not dust with the sugar until you are about to serve.
To store. Store cooled madeleines in an airtight container for a few days or freeze them in a double wrapping of plastic wrap for several months. Let the cakes defrost before dusting with sugar.