Do you suppose that there is anybody out there who has taken up baking madeleines without knowing a thing about Marcel Proust? It seems unlikely. Eating them, however, is a different story. From being unknown to all but the readers of The Remembrance of Things Past (as it then was) — and even by them untasted — the madeleine sank, for a while, into the worst sort of celebrity, becoming a calling card of the literary arriviste. Now that there is nothing very special about madeleines — except for their prettiness and their flavor, both of which have survived the chi-chi brouhaha intact — they are safe to serve without fear of being thought stuck up.
As it happened, I was the first person on my block to know anything about madeleines — not that it mattered in the slightest* — and I have been making them for about thirty-five years. The preparation is simplicity itself, but production used to be a pain, in the days before (a) vegetable spray and (b) nonstick molds. Buttering and flouring the tins was a dreadful bore, and missed bits were punishing, pulling craters from what are supposed to be the loveliest of small cakes. What a pleasure it is to give whatever I've baked the madeleines in — tin, silicone — a light tap and to see the beauties tumble onto the rack, gorgeously brown.
Now that it's a snap to acquire the scallop-shaped molds in which this very buttery batter is ideally baked, there's no reason not to add madeleines to your repertoire of baked goods. Proust may have had his decadent-aesthete side, but in singling out the madeleine for attention he revealed a taste for much more straightforward complexities. Du beurre, du beurre, du beurre, as Escoffier demanded — but, in the event, no temps at all. Needless to say, you want to use the best and the freshest unsalted butter that you can get your hands on.
From the very start, I've used the recipe for madeleines ordinaires that appears in the old Larousse Gastronomique. (My copy is dated 1961, but a brief foreword by Escoffier himself suggests earlier editions. The current Gastronomique is a completely different book.) The Gastronomique also offers a recipe for madeleines de Commercy, but I found it, the one time I made it, to be rather eggy, and too rich for tea.
Leaving the basic madeleine alone is difficult. I like to add a half tablespoon of grated orange zest (or perhaps a bit more). You may prefer lemon zest. Or, best of all, lemon oil. You may, for the matter of that, go through a period of frenzied experimentation with madeleine additives. Do so with abandon but without triumph: you will not have discovered anything new.
This recipe yields about four dozen madeleines.
Over low heat, melt a cup of unsalted butter.
In a large bowl, combine two cups of cake flour, a cup of sugar, a pinch of salt, four eggs, a half teaspoon of vanilla, and about the same amount — or perhaps twice as much — of grated orange zest. Stir in the melted butter until it is fully incorporated.
If necessary, prepare the madeleine molds with vegetable spray.
Using two tablespoons (not measures), fill the individual molds, not quite to the rim. Bake in a 375º oven for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the edges of the madeleines are a rich brown but not burned. Remove the tins from the oven and toss the madeleines onto a wire rack to cool. (December 2007)
* Easy to say, now that my late mother is no longer here to remember how I pestered her to bring back a tin or two from a trip to Paris.
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press