I promised myself that I wouldn’t mention Marcel Proust, but there was no way around it. So I’ll tell you what you may already know: That lots of us have heard anything about the pretty, shell-shaped tea cakes called madeleines is probably because of a short paragraph in one of the 20th century novelist’s long books, “Remembrance of Things Past.” In it, the taste of a madeleine brought back childhood memories. It also gave us the expression “Proustian,” which we get to use whenever the same thing happens to us.
But the story I love about the madeleine is how it came to be, which takes place in Commercy, France, in the 18th century. There, the Duke of Lorraine, a.k.a. the exiled king of Poland, Stanislas Leszczynski, first tasted these little cakes prepared by his maid named Madeleine. Their shape was an homage to religious pilgrims, whose symbol was a scallop shell, and their taste was so seductive they eventually become the darlings of Versailles’ royals.
So much history might be a burden for a little sweet, but not for the mad. The madeleine supports its reputation with a spongecake texture that just about begs to be dunked (Proust dipped his cake in tea); a pure flavor that wouldn’t blush at being called nuanced (no matter how you tweak the recipe — and I’ve been tweaking it for decades — the original butter-sugar combo keeps its integrity); and an ease of prep that puts it within reach of beginner bakers.
The best-known madeleine is flavored with its basic ingredients, sometimes vanilla and often lemon — perfect flavors for tea-dipping. I’ve given you that option in the accompanying recipe (as a variation), but my take is for those of us who go through the day on coffee. My new mads have the flavors we love in cappuccino.
● A madeleine pan will give you the traditional shell shape for these, but you can also use a mini-muffin pan.
● Plan ahead. While you can bake the cakes as soon as the batter is mixed, they’re so much better when the batter has been refrigerated — much more convenient, too. I prefer to spoon the batter into the prepped pans and chill it in the pans. This means that as soon as you’re ready to bake, everything’s already done.
● One of the characteristics of the shell-shaped mads is the bump they develop on their top sides. The bump is a source of pride among bakers. It can also be fickle. The best way to achieve this (which won’t appear in the muffins), and to get the best general rise, is to set up a thermal shock. (I love sounding like I know something about science.) By preheating a baking sheet and setting the cold mad pan on it, the instant hot-cold contact does the baking equivalent of making the batter “jump up.”
● Unlike most cookies and cakes that benefit from a rest after they come out of the oven, these are great eaten right away. They cool — and stale — quickly, which begets another kind of pleasure: That’s when they’re best for dunking.
The additions of coffee and cinnamon seemed like a natural to me, but it was a surprise to my French friends. “Original” was what they exclaimed when I served the cakes as a last bite at a recent dinner in Paris. I couldn’t tell for sure whether it was said with approval or consternation because the sweets disappeared too quickly. I’m taking it as a good thing.
Greenspan will host her Just Ask Dorie chat from 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
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12 madeleines or 24 mini-muffins
MAKE AHEAD: The batter needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days in advance. The madeleines are best served fresh and warm.
Madeleine pans are sold at kitchen stores and via online gourmet purveyors.
From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
2/3 cup flour
2 to 3 teaspoons finely ground espresso (may substitute 11/2 teaspoons instant coffee)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
Whisk together the flour, coffee, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a mixing bowl.
Whisk together the sugar and eggs energetically; you’re looking for the mixture to thicken and pale just a little, and this could take a couple of minutes. Once the whisk leaves tracks, beat in the vanilla extract.
Still working with your whisk or switching to a spatula, gently mix in the flour mixture, folding and stirring only until it disappears into the batter. Finally, fold in the melted butter. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. If you can, chill the batter for a few hours so that it has time to take in the flavors of the coffee and cinnamon.
Alternatively, you can spray (use baker’s spray) or butter and flour a madeleine pan or 24 mini-muffin wells, spoon the batter into the molds, cover it lightly with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, and refrigerate the batter this way. (I like this technique — it means that the madeleines are ready to go.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a large, heavy baking sheet in the oven and preheat it, too. Grease and fill the mad or muffin tin with batter, if you haven’t already done so.
Place the pan on the hot baking sheet and bake (middle rack) for 12 to 15 minutes if you’re making shell-shaped mads, and 10 to 13 minutes for minis, or until the cakes are golden brown and their centers spring back when lightly poked. Immediately release the little pastries from the molds by rapping the edge of the pan against the counter. Gently pry any recalcitrant madeleines from the pan using your fingers or a butter knife; transfer them to a serving platter — these are so good straight from the oven — or a wire cooling rack.
VARIATION: To make traditional madeleines, omit the coffee and cinnamon and increase the vanilla increase to 11/2 teaspoons. Rub the zest of 1 lemon into the sugar before your beat in the eggs.
Nutrition | Per piece: 140 calories, 2 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
Recipe tested by Kara Elder; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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