Madeleines de Commercy are named for the town where they are said to have originated. They appear to have two myths of creation.1 The first is that the recipe was sold by the Commercy convent's nuns to local bakers during the French Revolution. The convent was dedicated to Mary Magdalene, hence the name, and the scallop shell is a Marian symbol refering to divine conception, hence the shape.2 The second is that a girl by the name of Madeleine from the town of Commercy gave some to Stanislas Leszczynska, the exiled King of Poland. It is said Stanislas visited Lorraine (where Commercy is located) and the girl gave him these cakes during his stay. He liked these cakes so well that he called them madeleines in her honor and gave them to his wife and to his daughter, Marie Leszcynska. It is through the latter they are said to have become known throughout France. Marie was the queen of France and Louis XV acquired the duchy of Lorraine in 1766, which gives Stanislas opportunity. Either story could be true or false, and indeed both could be true or false at the same time. I doubt we'll ever know.
What is undeniable is that madeleines are luscious little cookies. Really a moist two bites of the most heavenly buttery sponge cake rather than a biscuit. When they're really fresh, they're a tiny bit crisp on the edges and meltingly tender inside. I learned to love these expensive little morsels the year I lived in Berkeley and sat around in cafes after class, reading.
I've never seen an inexpensive madeleine for sale and it's for good reason. These lovely confections are somewhat fussy to make and they stale quickly. Still, the first is surmountable, and I've never found the second to be an issue. And both are even more reason to make them at home so you can have all you want.
The ingredients themselves are simple and inexpensive. The major outlay when making madeleines is the special baking pan with recesses in the shape of stylized scallop shells. They come in a variety of sizes, styles, and materials. These include round 'realistic' shells versus the classic elongated shells, different numbers and sizes of recesses, tinned steel, non-stick steel and silicone. Mine is a large heavy gauge tinned steel pan that cost me $70. It's gorgeous, but not for the faint of heart or cheap of wallet. If you don't want to spend this kind of money, mini-muffin tins can be used instead. Not as pretty, but they'll still taste good.
There are many many recipes for madeleines. The one I use appears to be one of a subgroup which makes a fairly typical genoise style cake batter. Others include using almond paste, or par-cooking the egg yolks first.
This recipe comes from the New York Times Cookbook (I don't recall the year of publication, as it was my sister's copy). I've modified the ingredients list a bit, although not in any significant ways. It makes 3-4 dozen depending on the size of your madeleine pans and how full you fill the cups. They are also best within 2 days.
4 eggs, room temperature
1/8 tsp. salt
2/3 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract (variation: replace some or all of the vanilla with finely grated lemon or orange zest, almond extract, or orange flower water)
1 c. (140g) flour (all purpose is fine, although cake flour is ideal), sifted
1/2 c. butter, melted and room temperature.
powdered sugar, optional
Preheat the oven to 400°F and place the rack in the bottom third of the oven.
Lightly grease and flour the madeleine pan's cups. Ideally, only prepare enough batter to fill what will fit in your oven in one batch. As the batter sits, the butter tends to separate out and this will change the texture of the finished cookie.
Beat the eggs with the salt and gradually add the sugar until the mixture is extremely light in color and forms stiff peaks. The air you beat in is the sole source of leavening for these cookies, so don't skimp.
Beat in the vanilla and then fold in the flour in four batches until there's no visible flour. Try to keep it as light as possible. Sift the flour directly into the eggs and then fold in with a whisk.
Working briskly, fold the melted butter into the batter one tablespoon at a time. Fill the pan's cups about 3/4 full and place into the oven immediately. If you can't fill the whole tray, pour a bit of water in the unfilled recesses so the pan heats evenly.
Bake until the edges are medium to deep golden brown and the center is a light golden, about 10 minutes. Do not overbake them or they will be dry. Turn the cookies out onto a rack to cool. If you make a second batch, wipe out the cups thoroughly and let the pan cool. If you can't remove all of the batter residue, let the pan cool, and then wash it. Then lightly grease and flour it again for the next batch.
Dust the finished cookies with powdered sugar, if desired. And, when you're all done, pour yourself a cup of fragrant tea or coffee and relax with your labor's bounty.
Stories 1Two stories about a cookie.
2The symbolism of the scallop shell.