~ Madeleines: 'Hoity-Toity' Shell-Shaped Tea Cakes~
If you ever want to be accused of being hoity-toity (a pretentious show-off), serve some freshly-baked buttery-rich madeleines with tea or coffee as a finish to your next ladies luncheon. Within my small circle of close friends this kind of thing happens all the time. We take it upon ourselves to poke fun at each others talents -- especially after a few cocktails. It keeps us grounded. When lunch is at my house, I am the designated target. "La-tee-da, Melanie made madeleines." Revenge is sweet because the jib-jabs flow both ways. "Mel, these cookies are great." "Barb, they're not cookies, they're actually little sponge cakes." "Well, isn't that special (church lady)."
A bit about the French madeleine (mad-len): Defined as a "a small rich sponge cake baked in pans with shell-shaped depressions", it is unofficially called "France's National Cookie". It's a specialty hailing from the French town of Commercy, North of the Lorraine region of France. The authentic "madeleines de Commercy" are made from egg yolks creamed with sugar and lemon zest, flour, beurre noisette (brown butter), and, stiffly beaten egg whites. They depend 100% on the volume of the egg whites for their feathery-light soft texture, and, contain no baking powder or baking soda (which weren't available to cooks in the 18th century). They are the classic snacky ending to every afternoon gouter (afternoon tea), or, a light ending to a French meal.
... and emerge from the pan marked with a golden shell bottom!
Madeleines earned their place in literature via Marcel Proust's immortal reference to them as "little shells of cake" in "the episode of the madeleine," in the novel In Search of Lost time. Historically, stories of their origin vary, but, the one I find the most authentic: they were named after a young French maid who worked for the Duke of Lorraine, Stanislaw Leszcynski, in the 1700's. She unexpectedly had to step in and replace the cook, and served, for a royal banquet, one of the few desserts she knew how to bake: her family's signature 'shell-shaped soft-cookie' confection. The Duke was so impressed by them, he named them after the gutsy girl.
A bit about me and madeleines: I never tasted a madeleine until the day I baked one. In the late 1980's I was shopping in my favorite store in downtown Boalsburg: The Country Sampler. At the time, it was our areas premier place to shop for well-made kitchen gadgets, cookware, artisanal dishes, glassware, table linens and candles. Imagine a gift shop in colonial Williamsburg, VA -- THAT was The Country Sampler. I came across two curious-looking baking pans on the sale table (in an almost hidden corner of the shop where regular customers knew to go). The store's owner, Marie Fedon, explained the pans and madeleines to me. Moments later, I walked out with two shiny pans for $10 -- marked down from $20 each. Over the years, in my quest for a favorite madeleine recipe, I invested in two standard-sized nonstick pans, and, two nonstick mini-madeleine pans too.
Stumbling upon two madeleine pans was the easy part. Finding a foolproof recipe was not -- there were very few recipes in print back then. I turned, of course, to The Joy of Cooking, and, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Both recipes were very good, but, very finicky -- even for an accomplished, fearless baker like me. From recipes made via the classic method I learned:
Madeleines are easy to make and easy to screw up -- madeleines can be maddening!
As much as I loved the madeleines, I found the process cumbersome enough to avoid making them unless I was requested or paid to do so (I allowed my pans to age gracefully in my "fancy-baking pan" cabinet -- for years). Then, thanks to modern-day experts like David Lebovitz and Martha Stewart, recipes incorporating baking powder began appearing in books and on the internet. Thanks to them, I could give up the tedious whisking of yolks over a double boiler, beating the whites to stiff peaks and browning the butter (I never cared for the browned butter versions anyway). Wow. Suddenly, I was back to baking madeleines, and, coming up with my own creative flavoring combinations too!
1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs at room temperature
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract, always add vanilla extract to madeleins
1 tablespoon of one other flavored extract, or, 1 1/2 teaspoons of a combination of two other extracts: almond, banana, coconut and rum are fun options, and, so are citrus flavors such as lemon, Meyer lemon, lime, Key lime, orange, blood orange, Mandarin orange, tangerine and grapefruit (Note: In the case of citrus flavors, if it's fresh fruit you have, substitute fresh juice for the extract and stir 1-2 tablespoons of freshly-grated zest into the mixture too.)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
confectioners' sugar for dusting cooled madeleines
~ Step 1. In a large bowl crack the eggs and bring to room temp, 30 minutes. In the meantime, melt butter and set aside to cool. Using a pastry brush, use a bit of the butter to paint insides of the shell-shapes, then, dust shells with a bit of additional flour. Invert the pans and give them a shake, to remove excess flour. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Measure sugar and extract(s).
~ Step 2. Starting on low speed of hand-held electric mixer for about 1 minute, gradually working your way up to high speed, beat together the eggs, egg yolks, sugar and extracts until pale and thick, about 6 full minutes at high speed, using a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl frequently. Remove the mixer.
~ Step 4. Fold in the butter by slowly allowing it to drizzle down the sides of the bowl, in three additions, folding thoroughly after each addition, taking the time to make sure there are no liquid pockets of butter.
~ Step 5. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place batter in refrigerator to chill for 2-3 hours prior to baking. Remove batter from refrigerator. Uncover and resist the urge to stir or fold the batter. That action will just deflate the 1st rise the baking powder has provided.
~ Step 5. Using a 1 3/4" ice-cream scoop as a measure, place a dollop of batter, about 2 tablespoons, into the deep round center of each shell shape in the first pan.
~ Step 6. Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven until lightly-golden and humped-tops spring back when touched lightly, about 8-9 minutes. While first pan is baking, get second pan ready for the oven and pop them in to bake when you remove the first pan.
~ Step 7. The moment madeleines emerge from oven, using a sharp knife underneath one corner of each madeleine, lift and gently transfer to a cooling rack. Cool completely prior to serving with a dusting of confectioners' sugar.
Due to their humps, they always have that "signature lean"...
Special Equipment List: 2, standard-sized madeleine pans, preferably nonstick; pastry brush; fine mesh sieve or flour sifter; hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula; 1 3/4" ice-cream scoop or 2 tablespoon measure; cooling rack
Cook's Note: Using cake flour to make madeleines makes a big difference -- it's the right thing to do. To learn what using the right flour for the right culinary task can do for you, click into Categories 5, 6, 7, or 16 to read ~ Flour Facts: All-Purpose, Bread, Cake & Pastry ~.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)