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There are so many French pastries that never in a million years would I attempt to undertake making myself. When something resembles a work of art (as just about every French pastry does), it’s best to leave the making of them to the professionals and of course the consumption of them to you and your stomachs. However, madeleines, otherwise known as petit French butter cakes, are the exception to the norm. By reading this post you’ll learn how to make classic madeleines.
Some years ago I bought a madeleine pan because the fact of the matter is, if you ever want to make your own madeleines, you need a madeleine pan that has the proper molds. There’s no substituting anything. I was a little dubious how they would turn out but honestly, they were perfect. They’re nothing at all like macarons which have an extremely delicate and ornery temperament when it comes to making them.
A note about this particular recipe of madeleines– author Wolfert mentions that these “Southwest-style madeleines are more like little cakes, in the traditional shape (like a shell on one side, with an adorable hump on the other).” And also that they are “not the same as the more (widely known) madeleines de commercy (a version that Julia Child herself baked and talked about many times).
On the first day of my recent trip to Paris, I actually returned to my hotel, the Hôtel du Louvre at the end of the night to a plate of homemade madeleines, which was quite the lovely surprise. But the thing about madeleines (and Wolfert mentions this too) is that they get stale and rock hard very fast if they’re not properly stored away.
If you’re wondering about Dax, it’s a commune in southwestern France and is also known as a spa, specializing in mud treatment for rheumatism and similar ailments. But from a foodie perspective, the madeleines here have been famous for many years and in Dax and the nearby town of Mont-de-Marsan (whose patron saint is Sainte Madeleine), the two towns actually hold madeleine bake-offs! Now how utterly cool would it be to attend one of those??
If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at French baking, this is the perfect recipe to start with. And believe me, it’s a walk in the park if you’ve ever attempted making croissants (I did…once…and they were abysmal!).
Madeleines from Dax (Madeleines de Dax)
Recipe adapted from The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert
*Begin 1 day in advance*
2 large eggs
Pinch of salt
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 1/2 tablespoons cake flower (if you don’t have cake flower, simply start with one level cup of all-purpose flour, remove two tablespoons of the flour, and add two tablespoons of cornstarch)
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons clarified butter, melted and cooled (if you don’t have clarified butter simply add a dash of olive oil to the butter)
2 tablespoons half and half cream
Finely grated zest of a 1/2 to 1 full orange
1 tablespoon softened unsalted butter
1.) A day in advance, combine the eggs, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Whisk until thick and light in color, about two minutes, then refrigerate.
2.) Mix together both flours with the baking powder. Sift them twice. Gradually stir the dry ingredients into the egg mixture. Do not overbeat. Add the clarified butter, the cream, the orange zest, and the vanilla; stir gently until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the batter overnight.
3.) The following day, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Using a pastry brush, coat the ridged hollows of a madeleine pan with the softened butter. (It is not necessary to dust with flower.) Use a teaspoon and a small spatula to barely fill each hollow about 2/3 full with batter. Tap the mold on the table to allow the batter to settle.
4.) Bake for 5 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F and bake for 7-10 minutes longer, until the madeleines are pale golden and just turning brown around the edges.
5.) Use the tip of a knife at the base of each madeleine to turn them out onto wire racks to cool slightly. Serve warm and freshly baked with fruit compotes, sorbets, and custards. Leftover madeleines may be stored in an airtight container and reheated gently before serving.
Notes from Wolfert
Why does the batter need to be made in advance? This is necessary so that the proteins in the flour can relax, and the madeleines will be very tender when baked.
Madeleine pans should never be scrubbed with harsh abrasives. Scratched pans cause madeleines to bake up very pale on the ridged sides.