It’s impossible to write about this little French classic without reference to its biggest fan, Marcel Proust, (a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); earlier rendered as Remembrance of Things Past, published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest authors of all time). But really, for all the “exquisite pleasure” the Madeleine brought him, Marcel Proust didn’t do a terribly good job of selling its simple charms. He describes them as having the plain appearance of “squat plump little cakes … which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell”, and he neglects the Madeleine’s chief selling points: its sublime buttery flavour and light, fluffy texture.
The pre-Proustian origins of the Madeleine are a bit of a mystery. Several legends exist attached to the “invention” of the Madeleine. They have tended to center around a female character named Madeleine who is meant to have been at the service of an important character in the history of the Lorraine – although there is no consensus over the last name of the cook nor the identity of the famous character. Some consider that the illustrious patron was 17th-century cardinal and rebel Paul de Gondi who owned a castle in Commercy. Others consider that the cook was named Madeleine Paulmier, who is said to have been a cook in the 18th century for Stanisław Leszczyński, duke of Lorraine. The story goes that, in 1755, Louis XV, son-in-law of the duke, charmed by the little cakes prepared by Madeleine Paulmier named them after her, while his wife, Maria Leszczyńska, introduced them soon afterwards to the court in Versailles. Much beloved by the royal family, they conquered the rest of France in no time. Yet other stories have linked the cake with the pilgrimage to Compostella, a pilgrim named Madeleine is said to have brought back the recipe from her voyage or a cook named Madeleine is said to have offered little cakes in the shape of a shell to the pilgrims passing through Lorraine.
I don’t know if the bosse, the bump or hump, was as iconic in the eighteenth century—the time when Madeleine were first made—as it is today, but that dome has become the holy grail of Madeleine bakers. The batter also needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour to chill and hydrate the flour. You can leave it for longer than that, even overnight. Many recipes say that the colder the dough is kept, the more likely it is that the Madeleine will form the classic bump on the back. I experimented with freezing one baking tray and not freezing the other, and found that the Madeleine baked on the unfrozen tray had a significantly smaller bump. So if that feature is important to you, be sure to freeze the pans and then get the filled pans in the oven right away. You can even go so far as to freeze the already filled pans for about 10 minutes before placing immediately in the oven.
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
5 tablespoons / 75 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Preheat oven to 180 C / 360 F
Butter and flour Madeleine pans carefully
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk eggs, sugar and salt together until thick, about 5 minutes
Add vanilla and lemon zest
Using a rubber spatula, fold in flour and baking powder
Fold in butter gently
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to rest at least one hour and up to overnight
Spoon mixture into prepared Madeleine pans
Bake until golden, about 10 minutes
Remove from pans
Cool on racks
Madeleines are best eaten the day they’re baked