For my American readers, your first (or only) experience in trying madeleine may have been the packaged variety sold at the counter of a coffee shop. I’m looking at you, Starbucks. If that’s the case, please understand those are not madeleine. Or rather, they are worst possible version of madeleine anyone could hope to encoutner, and so if you were less than thrilled with them, think about giving them a second chance.
Now, for anyone who has experienced a proper madeleine – light and delicate and freshly baked – you know that there’s a reason they are an absolute classic in the French pastry tradition. Let’s try and make those today.
Most (but not all) culinary historians agree that Madeleine originated in the Lorraine region of France. Beyond that, not much can be said for certain in terms of origin. It seems plausible that someone by that name had something to do with their invention, but whether it was a chef named Madeleine or simply a muse that inspired them is unknown. Madeleine Paulmier, a cook to a duke in the 1700s is a prime candidate for creating the treat, but again, don’t let anyone tell you they know for sure.
Madeleine are a type of cake sponge known as a genoise; whipped eggs with dry ingredients folded in. Traditional genoise sponge uses air rather than a chemical leavening agent to help the cake rise, although almost all modern versions of madeleine employ baking powder, since the batter is best rested before baking and that would be more than enough time for any developed air bubbles to break down.
You’ve almost certainly seen madeleine baked in the classic scallop shape, although this isn’t strictly necessary for them to be considered madeleine (the British have a version that employees a different baking mold). While most Americans are under the impression that the scallop pattern is the “face” of the madeleine, savvy cooks know it’s actually the developed hump on the opposite side that is evidence of proper crafting. This is where the proper madeline pan (and shape) is crucial – heat is directed to the bottom and outside edges of the cakes, setting them, and giving the center time for the baking powder to react and expand, thus creating the hump. For this reason I strongly suggest avoiding silicone madeleine pans, as they don’t conduct or distribute heat in the proper way to create a hump.
Baking the madeline properly isn’t the last step in perfecting them. The light, airy texture of the cake dries out very quickly, so using a tea towel to cool them is a must. They really are worth taking the time and care to serve fresh, ideally as soon as they are cool enough to handle. I think they are a perfect item for afternoon tea, but once you have a proper madeleine, you’ll find any excuse at all to make them.
Cheers – Chef Scott