madeleine cookies and coffee

I have baked 12 dozen madeleine cookies in the past three weeks. Twelve dozen. Why the feverish baking spree, you ask? I blame my boss.

It all started a couple months ago when he made a literary allusion that sailed over my head. “You know, like Proust’s madeleines,” he quipped during a meeting. Proust, Proust… I scrunched my eyebrows together, scrambling for a mental foothold. The French guy, right?

Clearly I had some homework to do. Fortunately it involved butter and sugar.

madeleines on a cooling rack

You see I’ve since learned that the 20th century French novelist Marcel Proust wrote a six-volume, 4,200-page magnum opus called In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). But people only reference the part about cookies.

The story goes like this: Marcel Proust’s character is having a crummy day. His life feels futile and listless, as colorless as an overcast sky. So his mother tries the oldest trick in the book to cheer him up—fresh baked goods. “She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.”

The protagonist dunks one of these sweet but not too sweet morsels into a cup of tea, takes a sip, and is instantaneously whisked back to his childhood. For a tender second he’s wrapped in the warmth of his youth, a rush of memories triggered by the taste of the madeleines. In a crumb, “I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

For those of you who’ve seen Pixar’s Ratatouille, remember when the cranky food critic eats a bite of ratatouille and is transported back to his mother’s kitchen in the Provencal countryside? It’s like that. In a bite, bliss.

madeleines on a cooling rack

Normally I have a rule that I don’t buy kitchen tools with only one function, such as tin molds for madeleines, but in the interest of some serious scholarly research I decided to make an exception. That’s about when the madeleine mania took hold of me.

On my first attempt, I turned to Heidi Swanson from 101 Cookbooks. The batter was so addictive I ate it by the spoonful, risk of salmonella be damned, but the texture was unexpectedly cake-like. Convinced I had undercooked or overwhipped it, I tried again. Then realizing I accidentally used bread flour, again. By the fourth attempt, I switched to a recipe from Patricia Wells, which was more toothsome but flatter in flavor.

On the fifth attempt and an unsuccessful effort to merge the two recipes, I finally acknowledged that my only reference point for madeleines came from Starbucks—perhaps not the most authentic patisserie. So, because taste trumps texture, I’ll refer you back to Heidi’s original recipe—with a few tips picked up from Patricia. The result may lack that particular crumb that Proust made so famous, but the flavor is incomparable.

Besides, at some point well-intentioned research turns into procrastination. Enough already. It’s your turn. Go bake some cookies.

madeleines for breakfast

Madeleines

Adapted (very slightly) from 101 Cookbooks

Be sure to use all-purpose flour. Also, if you take the time to rest the dough in the fridge for an hour before baking, you will be rewarded with denser madeleines—a good thing, in my book.

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (6 ounces)
2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter (for greasing pan)
3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
a pinch fine-grain sea salt
2/3 cups sugar
zest of one large lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
powdered sugar

a bit of extra flour for dusting baking pan

Special equipment: A madeleine baking pan, regular or small

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt the 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a small pot over medium heat until it’s brown and gives off a deliciously nutty aroma, roughly 15-20 minutes. Strain (using a paper towel over a mesh strainer)—you want to leave the solids behind. Cool the butter to room temperature. By doing the butter first you can complete the rest of the steps while it is cooling.

While the melted butter is cooling, use the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to grease the madeleine molds—get in there and make sure you get in all the ridges. Dust with flour and invert the pan tapping out any excess flour. Put the eggs with the salt in the bowl of an electric mixer with a whisk attachment. Whip on high speed until thick—you are looking for the eggs to roughly double or triple in volume—approximately 3 minutes. Continuing to mix on high speed, slowly add the sugar in a steady stream. Whip for 2 minutes or until mixture is thick and ribbony. Now with a spatula fold in the lemon zest and vanilla (just until mixed).

Sprinkle the flour on top of the egg batter, and gently fold in. Now fold in the butter mixture. Only stirring enough to bring everything together. Optional (but highly recommended): refrigerate the dough for 1 hour.

Spoon the batter into the molds, filling each mold 2/3-3/4 full. I found using a ¼-cup measure of batter for every two molds worked well (so roughly 1/8 cup of batter per mold).

Bake the madeleines for 12-16 minutes (7-10 minutes for smaller cookies), or until the edges of the madeleines are golden brown. Remove from oven and unmold immediately. Cool on racks and dust with powdered sugar.

Makes 2-3 dozen regular madeleines.