Nearly twenty two years ago I got married, and as a gift I was given a copy of Patricia Wells’ book about the cuisine of Joël Robuchon. It was a heady book for a 23-year-old with Vermont commune roots. The book, and its recipes, stepped me directly into the intimidating world of French food. Patricia Wells promised to explain the techniques I’d need to make Robuchon’s Foie Gras and Creamy Scallop and Caviar Pillows, but at that age I could hardly afford to buy the ingredients, let alone all the equipment I’d need to make them. So, as is true to my nature, I flipped to the back of the book, to all the sweets and landed on the recipe for Madeleines. I’d read about these sexy, little, shell-shaped cakes in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, when I was in college. Proust would have been an amazing food blogger with words like these:
“She sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop 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. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine…”
But, Proust neglected to provide the recipe, so over the years people have made up their own versions. Some based on a genoise, some a pound cake batter, but Patricia Wells and Robuchon have created what I think is the ultimate Madeleine. It’s a combination of browned butter, honey, lemon zest and almond meal, which combines to make an incredibly rich cake that’s soft on the inside, crisp on the outside and worthy of the shuddering Proust describes. The key to the success of this recipe is to use really flavorful honey, chill the batter before baking and make sure your scalloped Madeleine pans are really well buttered. Whenever theres a special occasion or I want to do something particularly sweet for my husband, I bake him Madeleines.
Honey Madeleines from Simply French by Patricia Wells and Joël Robuchon (I rarely make a recipe without improvising, but this one is perfect in my mind and needs no changes.)
Unsalted butter, softened, for greasing the pans
13 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 2/3 cups confectioners’ sugar (powdered sugar)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely ground almonds (almond meal)
6 large egg whites
1 tablespoon strong-flavored honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 lemons, zested – optional
To make the Madeleines:
In a saucepan heat the butter over medium-high heat. It will bubble,
then foam and finally the solids in the butter will brown and smell nutty.
Strain the browned butter into a bowl and allow it to cool. It shouldn’t be solid, but no longer hot.
Sift together the sugar, flour and almond meal.
Beat the egg whites until foamy, but still very soft, so they run off the beater when it is lifted. Whisk in the dry ingredients. Add the brown butter, honey and vanilla. If you want a lemon scented cake, then stir in the zest.
Place the batter into a container, cover and chill for at least 2 hours, but this can be done a day or two ahead.
To bake the Madeleines:
Preheat the oven to 375°F
Generously grease the pan with butter. (I highly recommend getting a Nonstick Madeleine Pan)
Fill the pans about 3/4 of the way with the chilled batter. This may require you to wet your finger tips to spread the sticky batter evenly in the pan.
Bake the cakes for about 18 minutes or until they are golden brown on the edges and pale, but firm on the top.
The cakes will dome on the top and that is part of their signature look.
Dust with a little confectioners’ sugar and serve warm or allow to cool.