I've had madeleines on my mind recently, and Renee’s call to create a cake for the third installment of Is My Blog Burning? provided an excellent opportunity to actually make the little cakes for the first time.
The small, buttery cakes, which, as Marcel Proust describes in Remembrance of Things Past, “look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell,” will be forever associated with his meditation on time and memory.
One bite into the the madeleine triggers a flood of memories of youth spent in the fictional village of Combray. Eventually, the town of Illiers, Proust’s ancestral home, morphed itself into Illiers-Combray, a “ville touristique,” where some 2,000 madeleines are sold every month to visiting Proustophiles.
The historical origins of the madeleine are disputed, and Larousse Gastronomique relates two conflicting accounts of the cake’s invention. One story lays the origins of the madeleine at the feet of one Jean Avice, the “master of choux pastry,” who worked as a pastry chef for Prince Talleyrand. Avice is said to have invented the Madeleine in the 19th century by baking little cakes in aspic molds.
Another account puts the origins of the madeleine much earlier, dating to the 1700s, when they were supposedly first made in the town of Commercy in Lorraine, then popularized at Versailles and later in Paris by Stanislas Leczinski, King of Poland and father-in-law of Louis XV. As one version goes, the cake was invented in 1755 during a feast given in Commercy by Leczinski at which a young servant named Madeleine cooked this traditional cake and saved the dinner.
There are multiple variations on the madeleine, from spiced versions to chocolate cakes. The recipe I used comes from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries From the La Brea Bakery. The recipe combines flour, ground almonds, baking powder, eggs that have been whipped together with sugar, along with a substantial amount of butter that is melted with vanilla bean and lemon zest. All of these ingredients are combined together, and then the batter must rest, refrigerated, for at least 24 hours to three days before baking.
Making the little cakes required special equipment, and so I purchased a gastroflex madeleine form (below). The soft, flexible mold is made of silicone and provides a completely non-stick, easy-to-release surface for baking the madeleines.
As a non-stick surface, the silicone form worked excellently, but I found that it buckled under the heat of the oven, causing the batter in some of the forms to spill over and lose some of their shape (they still tasted fine, of course). The bottom, scalloped side also did not brown as fast as the top did, so I would be interested to try this all over again with the more traditional steel pan rather than the modern gastroflex.
These minor problems aside, the madeleines came out better than I could have imagined--spongy and sweet, with the intense aroma of vanilla, lemon, and almond.
Thanks to Renee for leading this worldwide cake walk!
Related: Previous Is My Blog Burning? entries:
-Is My Blog Burning? Tartine with Bacon, Avocado, and Mâche
-Is My Blog Burning? Roasted Chestnut Soup