I’ve never made madeleines before. They seem to have been in my life for as long as my memory goes back, like scones and clotted cream, the bread pudding and Christmas puddings I used to make as a child with my grandmother. I guess I perhaps ate madeleines for the first time in France. I was 8 when I first went abroad. We drove to Dover, crossed the Channel by ferry (no tunnel then), and drove – well my father drove – all the way through France into Spain to stay near Barcelona in an apartment owned by a friend of his from his RAF (Royal Air Force) days. This was before the advent of motorways. It took about three days. On the way back, we stopped in Paris. We arrived late evening, checked into our hotel, and then went to a small cafe next door. We ordered sandwiches. Imagine my 8-year-old amazement when a long baguette, filled with ham was put into my hands. I’d never seen a baguette before; I’d never seen a sandwich like this before. But what an adventure! I remember my first baguette well despite the passage of many years; it’s a strong visual memory in my mind and can conjure up all the awe and pleasure of that first night in Paris … but I don’t remember my first madeleine. And really, madeleines are all about memory … well, they are if you know your Proust.
Proust famously wrote about madeleines in his novel À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), which was published in seven parts from 1913 to 1927. The novel’s narrator, Marcel, eats the crumbs of a madeleine dipped in tea and it triggers a process of remembering his past life; a long-ago and forgotten memory is brought to his consciousness:
‘One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me tea … She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they have been mould in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell … I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.’
We’ve all experienced that tiggering of a memory by encountering certain people, returning to long-ago visited places, events. For those of us whose lives revolve around food and thoughts of what our next meal will be, food is so often the catalyst to the resurfacing of a memory. That first trip abroad was also my first taste of a sweet red pepper – in Spain; I’m sure you probably couldn’t buy them in UK at the time. My delight at the taste, the bright shiny colour of its skin, is something I’ve never forgotten and it often resurfaces when I pick up a red pepper and cut into its flesh and taste …
According my very old copy of the New Larousse Gastronomique, there is some controversy about the origins of madeleines. It’s been said that the great French pastry chef Avice invented the little cakes for Prince Talleyrand in the early 19th century. Others say they were made well before this in Commercy in north-eastern France and were brought into fashion at Versailles in about 1730. Other theories abound, but whatever their origin, there really is something very special about a madeleine.
I often buy packets of madeleines from the Whole Foods’ bakery; other times in Gail’s. And because I’ve been doing more baking of late on the blog, I’ve been thinking, I must try making madeleines. In recent months I’ve been looking for a madeleine baking tray whenever I’m in a shop selling kitchen equipment but had no luck. Until, by chance, I stopped off in Cobham a couple of weeks ago after seeing my dentist and went into a cook shop there and happened upon a beautiful madeleine tray!
Then I needed a recipe and despite the many cookbooks on my shelves and a Google search, I didn’t actually come up with many, and decided to return to my trusty The Roux Brothers on Patisserie book, first published in 1986 and much used. Here I found Honey Madeleines. And that is the recipe I used.
I’ve called this ‘first attempt’ because the end result was far from perfect. As I was piping the batter into the pan, I actually thought, I’ve no idea what I’m doing! Once they’d cooked, I realised I’d put too much batter mix in each shape as they spilled across into one another. But hey! They looked like madeleines and they certainly tasted like madeleines, so who needs perfection! Of course, next time, I will put less in. In fact I should have been able to make 12 but I only got 8 and a small one. I immediately thought the small one would be perfect for the youngest grandson – Alex, who is 17 months. But then I couldn’t resist trying it soon after it came out of the oven. As the Roux brothers say: ‘Serve the madeleines just as they are when they have barely cooled; they are sheer perfection.’
- 2 eggs
- 75g caster sugar
- 10g dark soft brown sugar
- small pinch salt
- 90g plain flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or essence
- 90g melted butter, cooled, plus a little for greasing
- 1 tablespoon honey
Preheat oven to 220C/Fan 200/Gas 8 // One madeleine tray // Piping bag with 1cm nozzle
Combine the eggs, both sugars and salt and work lightly to bring together. The Rouxs use a spatula; I used a small whisk. The key is lightness and not overworking the batter. Sift in the flour and baking powder and continue to mix lightly.
Now add the vanilla, cooled melted butter and honey. Mix gently but thoroughly until you have a smooth batter. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave for 30 minutes.
Grease the insides of the madeleine tray with a little melted butter. Get your piping bag ready.
Transfer the batter to the piping bag and pipe some into each little mould. As said above, I put a bit too much in each mould and I should have managed to get 12 little cakes from the amount I had.
Put into the preheated oven for about 10 minutes. Keep an eye on them as it’s important they don’t overcook as they’ll become dry rather than nicely moist.
As soon as they come out of the oven transfer to a cooling rack. The Rouxs tip their tray over, saying to be careful to not let it fall on the cakes and crush them. I decided to carefully remove each separately with a palette knife.
And that little one I couldn’t resist trying? It was still warm; perfectly shaped and I was delighted with how it looked. My very first home-made madeleine. And it was every bit as delicious as I’d hoped it would be. Maybe this was a new memory in the making …
The rest I put on a plate ready for teatime when my son was coming over with his two eldest boys. Here’s hoping they’d like them too!
Like them? They loved them. I had a second: so light and delicious. My son’s face lit in wonder at first taste for they really are special. He said he liked the slightly caramelised edge and promptly asked for a second. The boys liked them too. Son went home with two so he could give one to his wife and presumably eat a third; the boys shared the last one. In a short time they were all gone. Thus they were a great success – maybe not perfection to look at that first time but certainly perfection in the eating. I’m so glad I’ve made them at last and really, they are very easy. So I’m sure more will be requested and I’ll be baking them again very soon.