The French are quite justifiably renowned for their pâtisserie skills, and their famed picture-perfect madeleines are a delicious manifestation. Fragrant with lemon rind (and sometimes a hint of orange-blossom water) and warm from the oven, these miniature sponge cakes melt in the mouth and make the ultimate morning or afternoon treat.
Madeleines have an impressively lengthy pedigree, having first appeared sometime in the 18th century. According to the bible of all things French and culinary,Larousse Gastronomique, their origin "has been attributed to Avice, chef to Talleyrand, the French statesman… Other authorities believe the recipe is much older and originated in the French town of Commercy, which was then a duchy under the rule of Stanislaw Leszczynski." Certainly stories abound of the duke's visit to the town, his enjoyment of a small cake made by a peasant named Madeleine, and its introduction, now named in Madeleine's honour, to Versailles society.
History aside, there's no debate as to the delectability of these golden cakes and it's a simple task to make them for yourself. The fixings of madeleines are standard pantry ingredients - butter, flour, sugar, eggs et al. The only specialist equipment needed is a madeleine tray to form the signature shell shape. The trays are readily available from cookware shops and come in two sizes: one makes little cakes the size of petits fours and the other makes larger madeleines about 8cm long.
Once your equipment is sorted, making the madeleines is easy. Ensure the melted butter is cool before adding it to the dry ingredients, and don't overwork the mixture. A good rest is essential (for the batter, not the cook) - for at least four hours, or overnight if possible. Make sure your madeleine moulds are well buttered - use soft butter and a pastry brush to be certain you've reached every crevice - and only fill the moulds to about two-thirds full. Tap the tray firmly on the bench to expel air bubbles and into the oven they go. In the time it takes to boil the kettle and make a pot of tea, your kitchen will be filled with the buttery, lemony scent of madeleines.
As soon as the madeleines are risen and golden it's time to turn them swiftly out of their moulds. Use the tip of a small knife to extract any stubborn specimens and either dust them in icing sugar, as is traditional, or toss them in lemon-scented sugar, as we've done here, and eat them warm. It would be only fitting to read the much-quoted passage from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past while you enjoy the moment. Or not.
These delicate, buttery little shell-shaped cakes are arguably one of France's greatest gifts to baking.