For such a small, delicate cookies, madeleines sure have a lot of controversy around them.
The question for many cooks is: what recipe were Proust’s madeleines from? I’d honestly never heard of the French author’s passage from In Search of Lost Time, which is apparently how the shell-shaped French cookies got their notoriety. But read anything about madeleines, and it’ll likely mention Marcel Proust and how the cookie’s crumbs in a cup of tea bring up involuntary memories.
At first, I didn’t think any of that related to why I was looking forward to making the French cookies with my mom for this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie project. No, madeleines were always one of the cookies that my grandfather made for our annual Christmas cookie exchange. Standing apart by their shell shape, the cookies were often half-dipped in a chocolate glaze. We’ve always wanted to get the special pan to make madeleines, but never had a real reason to, until it was time for this Baking with Julia recipe.
But from what we remembered of my grandpa’s cookies, these weren’t them. Theses were too light and fluffy, like little sponge cakes. Delicious and airy, these cookies were wonderful on the Saturday afternoon before Easter. But his were denser, more like shortbread, from what I can recall. So over the next few days, I tested out two other recipes from Julia Child: from her cookbook, The Way to Cook, and also from her original TV series, The French Chef (season 9, episode 7). All three recipes were quite different, and all tasty. The one featured below is made of an egg-yolk genoise. The oldest recipe used whole eggs, while The Way to Cook’s instructions called for a doughier cookie that turned out crisp.
I’d made this into my own Proust-esque cookie search, trying to determine which recipe coupled the right memories. I’m not sure which ones were my favorite, especially since the second two batches included lemon zest, which brightened up the cookies tremendously. But maybe there’s not a “right” cookie (for Proust or from our cookie exchange). Maybe the cookies are meant to just be enjoyed in the here and now, simple and delicious.
I’m sure you could add citrus zest to these madeleines from baker Flo Braker’s ladyfinger genoise, or other flavorings as well. (Here’s the PBS video.) Simple to mix together, they yielded shells with the telltale little humps. Even though we overcooked them a smidgen, they didn’t taste overdone. I’d recommend keeping a close eye on the pans and as soon as the edges of the cookies turn a golden brown, pop them out of the oven. Dusted with powdered sugar, you can’t even really tell. Or add a glaze (chocolate? lemon?) or a dollop of jam, and enjoy.
From contributing baker Flo Braker, page 41
Makes enough batter for 6 dozen ladyfingers, 24 large madeleines, or 1 recipe petits fours
“The genoise is an inherently sturdy cake, but this genoise is even sturdier than the classic–it has a little more flour, giving it the body it needs to be piped into ladyfingers that will retain their shape, and additional egg yolks for moisture and even more structure. No matter that the proportions are different, the technique for making the batter is the same as that for Perfect Genoise.”
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 1⁄4 sifted cake flour
- 2⁄3 cup sugar
- 1⁄8 teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pour the melted butter into a 1-quart bowl; reserve.
Put the sifted flour, and 1 tablespoon of the sugar into the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer (or work with a hand-held mixer). Holding the whisk attachment from the mixer in your hand, beat the mixture just to combine. Add the remaining sugar and whisk by hand to mix. With the bowl and whisk attachment in place, whip the mixture on medium speed until it is airy, pale and tripled in volume, like softly whipped cream, 4 to 5 minutes. You’ll know that the eggs are properly whipped when you lift the whisk and mixture falls back into the bowl in a ribbon that rests on the surface for about 10 seconds. If the ribbon immediately sinks into the mixture, continue whipping for a few more minutes. Pour in the vanilla extract during the last moments of whipping.
Detach the bowl from the mixer. Sprinkle about one third of the flour mixture over the batter. Fold in the flour with a rubber spatula, stopping as soon as the flour is incorporated. Fold in the rest of the flour in 2 more additions.
Gently spoon about 1 cup of the batter into the bowl with the melted butter and fold in the butter with the rubber spatula. Fold this mixture into the batter in the mixer bowl. (This is the point at which the batter is at its most fragile, so fold gingerly.)
The batter is now ready to be used and, in fact, must be baked immediately.
From contributing baker Flo Braker, page 334
- 1 recipe Ladyfinger Genoise batter (page 41)
- 1 cup (approximately) confectioner’s sugar
Position the oven racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 400F. Butter and flour two madeleine plaques. (We used Baker’s Joy and it worked fine.)
Baking the cookies: Using a spoon or pastry bag without a tip, fill the molds with the batter. Bake for about 10 minutes, until the madeleines are puffed, spring back when prodded gently, and start to come away from the sides of the molds. Let the madeleines cool for a minute or two before turning them out onto a rack to cool. Dust with powdered sugar.
Storing: Both ladyfingers and madeleines are best the day they are made, although slightly stale madeleines are wonderful dipped in tea, a la Proust. You can keep the cookies in an airtight tin for a day or two or freeze them for up to the 10 days in a plastic container with waxed paper between the layers. Thaw, still packed, at room temperature.