“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
It’s not easy to write about madeleines without referring to their ultimate fan, Marcel Proust. Proust’s infamous musings on madeleines in his novel In Search of Lost Time covertly seek to contrast voluntary memory with involuntary memory through the experiences of his nameless narrator. Much like Proust’s narrator, I too find madeleines extremely evocative, and have memories of eating them in France as a very young child (in the blissful years prior to my coeliac diagnosis). However, madeleines are so much more than a Proustian literary cliché. Put simply, they’re a lighter-than-light sponge cake from France comprised of sugar, butter, flour and eggs, most often baked in distinctive shell-shaped moulds. However, method and flavourings can vary hugely, with purists favouring a modest dash of vanilla to the batter, whilst revolutionaries have (sacrilegiously) fashioned such creations as ‘funfetti’ madeleines. For me, when it comes to madeleines, the simpler the better. However, keeping it simple unequivocally demands the best quality ingredients; there’s nowhere to hide with madeleines made with cheap butter and battery-farm eggs.
Under the guidance of the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi and Phil Vickery, I have always made madeleines with honey as well as sugar, which I find lends a more complex and often floral sweetness to the cake. My most recent madeleines, however, used browned butter along with the honey, yielding what I believe to be my most delicious batch yet (thank you, Ravneet Gill). Whilst browning the butter takes a little more time, the deep, sweet nuttiness of the finished cakes is well worth the effort; affording simple ingredients like butter such love and affection transforms a simple confectionary into a more ambrosial pleasure.
It is widely recognised that madeleines are at their absolute best when served straight from the oven (like they do at St. JOHN). The beauty of Gill’s batter, then, is that is keeps beautifully in the fridge for several days, meaning that we could enjoy freshly baked madeleines periodically over three days. Although Gills’ recipe claims to make 12 madeleines, I suspect this is a misprint as I actually came out with 40 (which was just as well in the end). These really are one of my absolute favourites, and if I were to ever have my own restaurant, these would be the first thing on the menu.
Ravneet Gill’s Brown butter and honey madeleines:
185g unsalted butter
40g medium-dark runny honey
4 large eggs
150g caster sugar
20g demerara sugar
1tsp vanilla bean paste
185g plain flour (I used Doves Farm gluten free plain flour)
pinch of salt
10g baking powder
- Melt the butter in a saucepan and keep heating until it is browned and smells nutty. Stir in the honey and set aside.
- Put the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer or in a mixing bowl. Beat together at a medium speed for 2 minutes using the whisk attachment or a hand-held whisk. Add both sugars and the vanilla and beat at a medium-high speed for around 5 minutes until thick and frothy.
- Meanwhile, sift the flour, salt and baking powder together into a separate bowl and set aside.
- Beat the honey butter into the egg mixture at a slow speed. Transfer to a large mixing bowl if using a stand mixer.
- Fold the flour mixture in three separate batches. I like to use a whisk to fold in the same way you would use a spatula to fold as this minimizes lumps. Transfer the batter to a container, cover with a lid and chill in the fridge for a minimum of 2 hours (and maximum of 3 days).
- Preheat the oven to 180° fan/200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
- Heavily grease madeleine tray with butter and dust with flour. Place 1 tbsp of batter into each indent and bake for 8-12 minutes until there is a bump in the middle of each cake that springs back once pressed. Tap the tray on the table to release the cakes. These are best eaten freshly baked and warm.