In Search of Madeleine Perfection

Madeleines are such simple, elegant little cakes that convey the essence of French bakeries, sidewalk cafés, breakfast time dunking in coffee, tea, chocolate…. Indeed, they are used as a metaphor by French author Marcel Proust in his famous work, À la recherche du temps perdu, to explain the concept of involuntary memory as an unconsious sensory trigger that evokes memories of the past. Madeleines are simply light, buttery Genovese sponge-based cakes made in special moulds to produce thin, slightly rounded and ridged shell-like shapes on one side and a nearly flat with a characteristc bump on the other. They are generally sweet cakes, but many savoury versions exist, too.

Historically, they have been around since either the 18th or the 19th century, possibly a creation of a chef named Madeleine. As usual in many instances of culinary history, sources differ and offer vague and varied stories, some more believable (i.e. appropriately referenced) than others. Whatever their origins, my new mini madeleine pans were calling their Siren’s call. So, paging (or scrolling, whatever verb is more approprite for an e-book), through Barbara Feldman Morse’s book on Madeleines, I began adapting some of her recipes – adding, subtracting, substituting here and there – for the madeleine’s mini relation. Morse’s book is brilliant on flavour ideas – both sweet and savoury. However, I discovered that making these simple cakes is not all that simple. It isn’t so much the flavour ingredients added to the sponge, but the technique in mixing and baking them.

First go around, I made the classic mistake of putting put too much batter into the hollows, filling the space completely. The result tasted fine, but they took longer to bake and really puffed up. That was my error, of course. Yet, even when making the next batch and NOT overfilling the moulds, they still were not quite right – both in texture and shape (i.e.refusing to take on the characteristic ridged shape). Morse generally instructs that her (very) buttery batter, just after mixing, is spooned into the moulds and then baked at a moderate temperature. She also suggests pushing the dough into the shape. My first step after trying a few of her recipes was to compare her ingredients and techniques with the many madeleine recipes available – and there quite a few out there! Most of those other sources indicated that it was essential to chill the dough – which for the most part is looser than Morse’s (due to less flour in the mix). Others also indicate they should be baked at a high temperature, letting the dough “melt” into the shape with no need to press it in. The shock of cold batter meeting a high heat is what causes that characteristic bump in the back side of the madeleine. Also, a handy technique I learned from several of the websites I consulted was the use of a pastry piping bag with a plain nozzle that makes filling the moulds much easier.

Next time around, I stuck to a savoury recipe with herbs and cheese and the results were much better. I adjusted the ingredient proportions plus substituted yoghurt for butter – as some of the other recipes did – and modified the cooking techniques. Much better on shape, but, although the texture was spongy, they were more like shell-shaped mini popovers (or Yorkshire puddings) which I showed in my previous post, In My Mini Kitchen. So, adjusting the ingredients again after consulting the standard Genovese cake ingredient proportions…finally, (near*) perfection.

* As we all know, perfectionists rarely achieve true perfection.

mini_cheesy_madeleine_feature

Cheesy-Herby Mini Madeleines
I’ve been itching to use the new green herbs from the garden, so these mini madeleines use a fresh herb version of the classic mixture known as Herb de Provence.

Makes 48 mini madeleines

  • 100g plain (all purpose) flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • 4-6 leaves mint
  • 2 fronds of fennel greens
  • small amount fresh oregano leaves
  • 60g plain full-fat Greek yoghurt
  • 40g (about 3 Tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 35g Parmesan cheese
  • 35g Cheddar cheese
  • butter for preparing the moulds

Measure the flour and mix with the salt and baking powder. Finely grate the cheeses and add this to the flour mixture, rubbing it between your fingers to break up the fine shreds of the grated cheese into even smaller pieces. Clean and completely dry your fresh herbs. Strip the leaves from the rosemary and oregano, finely chop with the other herbs. This should yeild about 3-4 Tablespoons. Add the herbs to the flour mixture. Set this aside.

madeleine_herbs

In a mixing bowl, whisk the yoghurt, oil, eggs and sugar. Add to the dry mixture and stir until smooth. Spoon into a pastry piping bag that has its nozzle folded up in a large mug or small bowl with the bag folded over to allow the batter to be easily spooned in. Fold and crimp the piping bag shut and store in the refrigerator for at least a few hours or up to 24 hours.

madeleine_piping_bag

When you are ready to bake the madeleines, preheat your oven to 220 degrees C. with fan convection on (approximately 425 degrees F). Prepare the madeleine pans by brushing cooled, melted butter in the indents. Some recipes mention dusting the buttered pans with flour, but this is unnecessary and can actually impede the perfect shell-shaped ridges from forming. Place the pans in the refrigerator while the oven gets up to temperature.

Take your piping bag and madeleine pans out of the refrigerator and pipe in enough batter to fill about 2/3 of each of the moulds. You will need to estimate this as the chilled batter is stiffer. Do not spread it out.

mini_madeleine_prep1

Bake for about 6 to 7 minutes. They should have filled the moulds, puffed up slightly and turned golden. If you are lucky, they might even exhibit those characteristic bumps – something a little more difficult with savoury versions. Let them cool on a rack in their moulds for a few minutes before removing and letting them cool completely.

mini_cheesy_madeleine

Store in an air tight container for a few days, or they can be frozen. If freezing, separate into single layers, lined with greeseproof paper; to use, defrost completely. Refesh in the oven set at a low temperature before serving.

* * *

Notes
1. I described the standard Genovese cake ingredient proportions by weight in the notes of a previous post, The Jaffa Cake Challange with standard flour, sugar, fat and liquid ratios. But these are savoury madeleines, so the sugar content is much less and the bulk substituted with grated cheese. I’ve also used olive oil as the fat element instead of butter so that the cheese and herb flavours would predominate. Note also, that the texture of savoury madeleines are not quite the same as their sweet counterparts.
2. I used a silicone pastry piping bag and I would recommend them for a number of reasons:
* They are reusable
* Food does not stick on the smooth inner surface and the textured outer surface is good for gripping
* Discolouration and lingering odors (espically after piping something like a salmon mousse) are not a problem
* They are easy to clean
3. Since dairy solids and egg whites are considered to be “tougheners” as well as “driers” I might, next time, try substituting some of the yoghurt content for an egg yolk (a “tenderiser”) just to see if the texture can come a tad bit closer to (near) perfection.

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14 comments

  1. Mmmm, I used to have a madeleine tin, wonder where that’s disappeared to? Looks like some fun was had testing all the recipes! ow I’ve got that darn song from the french animation going on in my head. I’m Madeleine, I’m Madeleine……

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    • It’s use or it gets shoved to the back of the cupboard. I occasionally have a clean out and discover all sorts of treasures. Maybe you’ll find those madeleine tins again and start baking! They are fun little shapes.

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  2. There are so many things about this post that resonate with me. But first, let me say that two old, experienced hens, from opposite sides of the globe, seem to be on about evocative food memories today.
    I have attempted that Proust classic in the past and never got very far. Maybe it’s time for another shot.
    The thought of savoury Madeleines is most appealing , more so than sweet, and I could be tempted to purchase the required tin.
    Finally, a silicone piping bag is a brilliant idea and this is going on the ‘must have’ list.
    Great post Debi, as always.

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    • Confession time – this hen never got through Proust either! The savoury madeleines may not be traditional, but I like them anyway. We eat the mini ones with pre-dinner drinks if we have guests, or they and their larger counterparts are great served with soup instead of bread. Makes a change. Am working on a smoked salmon one – will eventually post on it, if I can get it right. May even try my hand at the basic sweet ones. It’s fun having the pans. I never thought I would own them, but bought them on a whim.

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  3. I have read your Madeleine experiments with great interest and had no doubt you would achieve ‘near’ perfection. I too like the idea of a savoury version. I am one step closer to buying myself a tin. (The lazy part of me is telling myself to just continue to read your experiments and imagine that I am eating them….)

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    • Virtual madeleine making (and eating)! Saves time and calories… You might start a trend, or perhaps one day you may find yourself picking up that madeleine baking tray, buying it and bringing it home to start a new obsession with madeleine making. That’s what happened to me. I’m waiting for the madeleine madness to lessen so I can obsess with something else. Gelato, sorbet, granita, mayhap.

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  4. I just love the idea of savory madeleines. What do you think would happen if I make them in my regular madeleine pan that I have rather than a mini one that I don’t have. Although I think I like the idea of tiny madeleines better.

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    • Next go will be in regular madeleine pans. I expect the only difference will be in the time baking – obviously longer than these mini madeleines. Also, have now made them with an additional egg yolk and not changing any of the other ingredients. Definitely worth doing.

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  5. It’s really funny, completely by chance (unless it’s a trend I’m missing) everyone seems to be posting about madeleines! I think there are four posts in my reader – yours are the only savoury ones though 😉
    I’ve made them a couple of times, and I think I even got the bump, but now I can’t find the recipe(s), so thanks for saving me hunting around again 🙂

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  6. Fabulous! I love that you made a savory variety! When I stayed in NYC once, we had dinner and lunch (it was that good!) at Cafe Boulud next door, they would bring out warm Madeleines with your check. It was a very sweet gesture!

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    • I’m enjoying exploring savoury madeleines and the mini size makes them a perfect size for nibbles with drinks. Note to self: must try the luscious buttery sweet madeleines next! I agree, when they are done well, they are divine.

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