My madeleine recipe, indeed most madeleine recipes, make for sophisticated (but easy to make) little French-style, snack cakes, somewhat like a mini cupcake/poundcake. You just need a madeleine mold for these and most kitchen stores have them. These wee cakes were immortalized, according to culinary legend, by Marcel Proust when in wrote of these "plump little cakes called petites madeleines". But I think there is another story here. And my story has nothing to do with the historical one proported by Wikipedia. But who can really fact check history's first Twinkie?
The shorter story is that I believe madeleines came about when a pastry chef found he had extra genoise batter. It was sometime in the early 1700's or so, and the waste-not-want-not chef probably dumped the extra batter into seashells (which make sense because probably there were a few of those hanging around). He placed the filled seashells of batter on a medal baking sheet and bake up the lot. Why do I think this? Because to my mind, the likelihood of having metal shell molds way back when, is like, unlikely. It seems a case of form and content collision. Later on, when the little cakes became a classic, someone thought to create the modern day madeleine mold.
But my take on this story goes further. There's more to it than excess genoise batter, a pastry chef and a notation by Proust, whose part in the story came way later and is erroneously attributed with immortilizing madeleines. My story of madeleines, as most baking stories go, is romantic and sweet.
A Madeleine Mold from France
There was once a pretty young thing who hung around a pastry kitchen 24/7. The year was somewhere around 1720, some king called Louis was in charge, and somewhere in Paris there was the young fille Madeleine who simply loved being around guys (as most chefs were in those days) and she loved her sweets. Understandably, a professional pastry kitchen was a great place for her to be. And the men in the kitchen were happy to have her in attendance.
Madeleine yearned for a tempestuous love affair but also, she yearned for one perfect little cake. And so, the head pastry chef, quietly in love with the lovely cake-addicted Madeleine, was inspired to create something exceptional, just for her. He did. In fact, the cakes were probably the shape of her bustle and wasp waist. To cover his lovelorn tracks, he told the other bakers he supervised (since without respect, a chef cannot command his kitchen) that he simply had extra batter and some sea shells he used as molds. Rather than cut a slice of a big cake in service of Madeleine's renown sweet tooth, he made some extra little cakes. But the truth was, he was way smitten.
The little cakes, made as they were of luscious sweet butter, lofty flour of spring wheat, pristeen white cane sugar, and a kiss of pure Bourbon vanilla, were a huge success and the chef made them daily. Of course, Madeleine loved them best but the cakes became so widely popular with everyone that they made French baking history, which is no small feat. They were like the cupcake rage of the 1700's. But alas, one day, Madeleine (the girl with the bustle, not the little cakes themselves) unexpectedly eloped. Well, it was not so unexpected; she was quite the flirt and no one in the kitchen, leastways, was a bit surprised at her hasty departure with the saucier, who like many a great saucier was all about flavor but knew little about baking nor the guy code of not swooping in on someone else's girl.
Sadly, the devoted chef patissiere who first wooed her with flour and created the cakes in her honour pined and almost overdosed on oil of wintergreen. However, all was not lost.
The chef slowly recovered from love gone awry. He often strolled on the beaches and looked for seashells to bake more madeleines with; the seaside walks calmed him. One fateful day, he met up with a gorgeous fisherwoman. They fell in love and married. She became a fishwife but in the best sense of the word. As destiny would have it, the brother-in-law of the fisherwoman was a welder. He generously fashioned metal madeleine molds for his new chef brother-in-law so the chef could bake madeleines anytime he wanted. The seashells, once meant as baking molds, were left, as well they should have been, by the seashore. At the wedding, everyone took home little silk loot bags, backed to the gills with fresh madeleines. It was quite the occasion. Later on, many babies and anniversaries later, the chef and his fishwife collaborated on Salmon Wellington, a gorgeous dish of puff pastry and succulent fresh salmon, served with Hollandaise Sauce, based on a recipe the saucier had left behind in the kitchen vault.
It bears noting, the departed Madeleine grew fat on too many little cakes and her saucier eventually left her. Chagrined but undaunted, she took to haunting other kitchens and their staff. But over time, she realized her folly - not the one of dabbling with men's hearts but of not having her own metier. So she learned the craft of pastry herself and became quite accomplished. One day, she also penned a letter of apology, which she never sent, to the chef who created the cakes. Eventually, she did marry and had three precious children for whom she invented darling little cookies called Tiny French Butter Cookies (Punitions) These, like Madeleines, became famous French classics in their own right. Punitions, incidentally, are really treats, not 'punishments' (as is the literal translation), for Madeleine was not without her own merits as a mother and boulangere.
Yes, everyone talks of Proust when they mention anything to do with madeleines and they bring up that quote that we presume occurred in that moment in a cafe where Proust is reported to have dipped his pastry in tea and extolled the virtues of madeleines. All in all, that's a rather dry story that really says nothing about madeleines nor Proust (not to mention, one would think Proust would have had espresso). To my mind, the original madeleines were born out of devotion and creativity of a baker who knew more about love than any philosopher every could. Every baker does. Pourquoi pas?
Baking Notes On a more technical baking note, many madeleine recipes call for cake flour. I use cake flour but to make things easier, in my recipe, I suggest a touch of corn starch to tenderize the all purpose flour most people have on hand. There are also all sorts of shell like madeleine molds available which produce cakes in that traditional conical seashell shape we equate with madeleines. But you may substitute small muffin and mini Bundt molds or tartelette pans for the first time around until you decide you are going to be a madeleine maven. Note that the batter must rest 30 minutes before baking.
Madeleines can be plain and simple or add miniature chocolate chips, currants, orange zest, or change the extracts, serve them powdered with confectioners' sugar or glazed with lemon glaze or dipped in chocolate. They are splendid in any rendition.