Madeleines: Elegant, from the oven

Delicate madeleines make a good homemade gift.
Delicate madeleines make a good homemade gift. (www.istockphoto.com.)

Baking them takes some patience

Posted: June 13, 2013

Bonjour, mes petits lecteurs!

Let's make a pact up front: If I resist the urge to make a preening bon mot about Proust in this prologue, you have to promise not to gripe about how this recipe, without exception, requires the purchase of a special pan. (A mini-muffin tin might produce something, but they will not be madeleines.) Deal?

Magnifique!

With that out of the way, we can move on to just why delicate, fragrant, consummately charming madeleines should become part of your baking repertoire. To begin, they are delicious - affectionate little sponge-cake kisses on their own, irresistible French seductions when slipped into a warm cup of tea.

In terms of form, their refined-yet-playful seashell bellies and gently humped backs are one of the most elegant things you can produce in your oven, and they require almost embarrassingly little skill or effort.

You should also regard madeleines as a go-to hostess gift. With minimal planning - basically enough time to rest the batter - you may bless some lucky person with a tin of exquisite confections, simultaneously endearing you to them with your thoughtfulness and intimidating them with your presumed baking prowess. Not bad for a cookie.

The only trick to this recipe - based on Julia Child's trustworthy "de Commercy" version - is a modicum of patience. Doing the steps completely and in order is crucial for the best result.

To start, make sure your eggs are at room temperature. The easiest way is to submerge them in a small bowl of warm water for a few minutes while you gather other ingredients.

When you're ready to start mixing, resist the call of the KitchenAid and opt instead for a wooden spoon and your own surprisingly strong forearms: Your efforts will result in a batter of superior consistency and authenticity.

The rest is all about flavor: Be careful not to overbrown the butter, and don't skimp on the vanilla bean - the flecks are gorgeous here. The rose water is optional, but it does add a subtle floral note that should please the kind of person who appreciates the subtle nuances of a fine tea cake.

Now, about that pan. If you're an insufferable food tourist like me, you will read Julia Child's memoir and then insist on visiting her favorite kitchen supply store in Paris to obtain your madeleine mold. Or you can just order one online.


Madeleines

Makes 24 cookies

2/3 cup superfine or caster sugar

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature and lightly beaten

10 tablespoons (11/4 sticks) high-fat butter (such as Plugra)

Seeds from 1 vanilla bean

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 teaspoons rose water (optional)

Powdered sugar for garnish (optional)

1. Put sugar in a large bowl and sift in 1 cup of the flour and the salt; whisk briefly to combine. Slowly add beaten eggs while stirring with a wooden spoon; continue to stir forcefully until the mixture is a thick, creamy paste, about 4 to 5 minutes.

2. Fill another large bowl with cold water. Melt 1/2 cup (1 stick) of the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until it just begins to turn brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and submerge the bottom of the pan in the cold water, stirring butter constantly until it reaches room temperature, about 5-6 minutes.

3. Add the butter to the flour mixture, and stir with the wooden spoon until mixture is glossy and has the consistency of pulled taffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add vanilla bean seeds, vanilla extract, lemon zest and juice, and rose water, if using, and stir to combine. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

4. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) of the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Combine the brown butter with the remaining 1 tablespoon flour in a small bowl.

5. Using a pastry brush, coat the cups of a 12-madeleine pan with a thin film of the butter-flour mixture; don't let it pool in the bottom of each cup. Spoon a ping-pong-ball-sized scoop of dough into the center of each cup. Use your fingers to gently press each ball into a rough oval. Bake until the centers of the madeleines are puffed and the edges just browned, 13 to 15 minutes. Watch carefully toward the end as they can burn quickly. Let the madeleines cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then transfer them to wire racks to finish cooling.

6. Repeat Steps 4 and 5 with the remaining butter-flour mixture (stir in a few drops of hot water if it has congealed) and the remaining dough. Serve plain or dusted with powdered sugar. (Store madeleines in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a few days.)

Per cookie (without optional ingredients): 95 calories, 1 gram protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

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