Here’s a recipe for madeleines, the little French tea cakes that sent Marcel Proust into such paroxysms of memory—all 4,250 pages of A la Recherche du temps perdu (of which I have absorbed only the first 200 with 4,050 to go) stem from is encounter with a madeleine and a sip of thé au tilleul. In honor of the book, I was moved to recreate the famous madeleines, which called up my own memories of a good many decades ago, back when we lived in France and they were my little girl’s favorites. I will make them again in a few weeks to welcome her home from Italy. They are surprisingly quick and easy, really just a classic genoise batter, though you do have to follow some rules, such as beating the eggs seemingly forever, and taking time to chill the batter before you bake.
This will make about 16 madeleines, looking “as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell,” according to the Master.
Note that you will need a madeleine pan–two would be better as each pan will make a dozen little cakes. They are easy enough to find on the internet–a French-made Gobel pan is just $16.95 at wiliams-sonoma.com (https://tinyurl.com/yxd8hs9q).
- 1 cup flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- pinch of salt
- ½ cup (1 stick) + ¼ cup unsalted butter
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup sugar
- zest of 1 lemon (organic or at least untreated)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Toss the flour with the baking powder and salt in a small bowl, just to blend. Set aside.
Melt the half-cup of butter in a small pan over low heat, then set aside to cool to lukewarm.
While the butter is cooling, use an electric mixer to beat the eggs and sugar together for at least 10 minutes, or until they are very thick and frothy. At the end, beat in the lemon zest and vanilla.
Using a rubber spatula, slowly but steadily fold in half the flour mixture until no trace of flour remains, then fold in the rest. Work carefully in order not to deflate the eggs.
By now the butter will have cooled down but still be a lukewarm liquid. Gently fold half of it into the batter, following with the remainder. This will take a little longer than the flour folding but it’s important still to take your time with it until all the butter has disappeared into the batter, which should be thick and quite glossy with the butter.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 30 to 40 minutes, no more.
About 1o minutes before starting to bake, turn the oven on to 350ºF. Melt the remaining quarter-cup of butter and use it to paint the insides of the shells in the madeleine pan(s). Just before baking, remove the bowl from the fridge and drop a dollop (a heaping tablespoon) of batter in each madeleine shell.
Transfer to the oven and bake for 10 minutes. The little cakes should be puffed up into a hump and just browning around the edges. Very gently press the hump and it should bounce right back. If not, return the pan(s) to the oven for another 2 to 5 minutes.
When done turn them out on a cake rack and serve as soon as you can. They are always best fresh out of the oven but can be held for a day or so if necessary.
Note that some cooks dust the ridged side of the shells with confectioner’s sugar. I prefer them unadorned.
If you want to be truly proustian, serve them up with a pot of lime-flower or linden tea (thé au tilleul) and wait for memories to surge to the front of your consciousness. But I would be remiss if I didn’t add that they are also delicious at the end of a meal with a glass of vin santo, a zibibbo (moscato) from Pantelleria, or a muscat de Beaumes de Venise.