Madeleines: Elegant French Tea Cakes To Bake & Share, by Barbara Feldman Morse; Quirk Books, $19.95, 176 pages.

Everyone’s either read or read about that famous passage in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu where the narrator, upon accepting his mother’s invitation to take tea and enjoy a scallop-shaped pastry, is suddenly and vividly transported back in time at those first flaky bites. Supposedly invented by a young servant named Madeleine Palumier at the court of Louis XV, these distinctive little cakes have been regaled as sophisticated and elegant cakelets.  And perhaps because of the madeleine’s pedigree and chic associations, many home cooks might refrain from baking them. Enter Barbara Feldman Morse, award-winning baker and recipe developer, who demystifies the madeleine and enthusiastically encourages readers to try one of the seventy versions in this book. The very fact that there are so many types of madeleines may shock readers, since some devotees feel (again, thanks to Proust) that there is only one authentic flavor. Morse takes out all the guesswork by introducing a one-bowl mixing method in a bid to save time. (She’s also included the classic method for those bakers with more experience, or time.)

They look fancy, but madeleines don’t require expensive ingredients – indeed, the basic recipe is nothing more than eggs, flour, sugar and butter – and will give home bakers the opportunity to employ those long-neglected madeleine pans received as housewarming presents. I am a wishful baker: I read cookbooks like these and long to try the concoctions described therein, only to either be totally disappointed at my lack of pastry skills or frustrated by vaguely written recipes. I located my own (never used) madeleine pan and attempted the classic recipe, reprinted below. To my delight, fragrant cakelets formed after less than an hour of preparation. While Morse suggests freezing uneaten madeleines, mine did not last long.  Bonne Fournée! (Happy Baking!)

CLASSIC FRENCH MADELEINES

Excerpted from Madeleinesby Barbara Feldman Morse. Reprinted with permission from Quirk Books.

I used to think there was nothing like a flaky croissant to make me long to live in France. Then I made these madeleines. The buttery, lemony flavor, combined with the gorgeous seashell shape—ridged on one side, smooth on the other—inspires daydreams of moving to one of Paris’s arrondissements. And here’s the best part: Although on this side of the pond a legitimate-tasting croissant is tough to find (let alone to bake!), these classic French madeleines are a cinch to make and taste divine. Serve them plain or dust them with confectioners’ sugar to jazz them up juste un petit peu.

Yield : 24 madeleines

8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus 4 tbsp for pans (optional)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1⁄2 tsp baking powder

3 large eggs

2⁄3 cup granulated sugar

1 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

11 ⁄2 tsp freshly grated lemon zest

1.    Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Coat two 12-shell pans with baking spray, or melt an additional 4 tablespoons butter and brush in each mold.

2.    In a small bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder.

3.    Place butter in another bowl and microwave on low power for 1 minute, or until melted. Allow to cool to room temperature.

4.    Place eggs and sugar in a 2-quart glass bowl or measuring cup and beat with a hand or stand mixer on medium-high speed until mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.

5.    Add vanilla and zest and continue beating for another minute or so. Fold in the flour mixture until just blended, then drizzle the cooled butter over the batter and incorporate completely.

6.    Using a 11⁄2-inch-diameter scoop or a teaspoon, fill shell molds with batter until almost full. Gently press batter to distribute it evenly.

7. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until madeleines puff up and are golden brown.

8. Remove pans from oven and let cool on a wire rack for 2 to 3 minutes, then invert and tap madeleines onto the rack. You may also use a small offset spatula to remove each one individually. Let cool completely if planning to store and/or freeze. Otherwise, serving madeleines warm from the oven is best!  

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