How to make the perfect madeleines
The secret to making the perfect madeleine is achieving the trademark bump, says Rosa Jackson
Scalloped on one side and with a characteristic bump on the other, the madeleine might seem a modest creation compared to more elaborate French pastries. Yet this is the cake that inspired one of Marcel Proust’s greatest displays of literary acrobatics in his epic novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
As macarons and éclairs enjoy their moment in the sun, the madeleine seems to coast above fashion, often appearing at the end of a multi-course meal like the final word.
Though its origins are unclear, perhaps dating from the Middle Ages when brioches baked in scallop shells were offered to pilgrims on the route to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, this cake can almost certainly be traced back to a cook called Madeleine: the question is which one.
One story attributes it to Madeleine Simonin, who worked for an exiled cardinal in the town of Commercy in Lorraine during the mid-1600s; another credits a kitchen maid with introducing the humpbacked cake to the court of Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine, in the 1750s.
Various sources have evoked other Madeleines, but what does seem certain is the link to Commercy, where it has long been a speciality. At one time, vendors sold madeleines through train windows to travellers, which led to their popularity in Paris.
For bakers, the more important question is how to achieve the elusive bump, which gives the madeleine its rustic, feminine charm. The temperature of the butter seems all-important: it should be neither hard nor completely liquid. Recipes that call for melted butter usually require the batter to rest in a cool place before baking, presumably so that the butter can solidify a little. Baking powder, though unknown to the original Madeleine, increases your chances of achieving a satisfying hump. Experts seem to agree that madeleines should be cooked in the top third of the oven.
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Some aficionados take the cakes one step further by adding honey, browning the butter or dipping the finished product in a lemon or orange glaze. I like to keep mine as simple as possible, flavouring them with a hint of lemon zest and letting the quality of the butter shine through.
Because I am an impatient baker, my recipe calls for butter that is softened but not melted, to avoid having to let the batter rest. Folding the butter into the light batter can be a little tricky, but there is no need to worry about small lumps, which create appetising air pockets in the finished cake. Feed these to your children and you might awaken their literary souls.
Makes about 18
130g/two-thirds of a cup light brown cane sugar
Pinch of salt
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1½ tbsp lemon juice
160g/1¼ cups flour
1tsp baking powder
125g/4½oz butter, at room temperature
Melted butter for the mould
Preheat the oven to 210ºC/450ºF. Coat a madeleine mould with melted butter using a pastry brush and place in the refrigerator.
In an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar, salt, lemon zest and lemon juice until the mixture is foamy and slightly pale (don’t beat it for too long as this will change the texture of the madeleines).
Sift the flour with the baking powder and fold into the egg mixture. Using a spatula, beat the butter until smooth and fold into the batter by hand, breaking up any large pieces (small lumps of butter are all right). Try not to work the batter for more than one or two minutes.
Using two spoons, place 1tbsp of batter in each cavity. Bake in the top third of the oven for five minutes, then lower the heat to 180ºC/375ºF and bake for another 15 minutes. Serve warm if possible.