The Madeleine cake of France is small, delicious, simple to make and a national favourite. This shell shaped cake has been around for centuries and like the croissant, its origins are hazy.
Just who the first baker was to make them is not certain and there are several legends. In one story they were invented by a young maid at the court of King Stanislas of Lorraine. She stepped in when a chef in a fit of pique refused to prepare dessert and the King and his guests were so taken with the little cakes the maid produced, they called them after her – Madeleine.
Other stories suggest they were made by Jean Avice, a famous pastry chef who worked for Prince Talleyrand (1754-1838). It is said Avice invented the Madeleine by baking little cakes in aspic moulds. Yet another version states that Queen Marie, wife of Louix XV, had a hand in making them with the help of her cook Madeleine.
Whatever the truth, the simple cake made from equal parts of butter, sugar flour, eggs and grated lemon rind is one of the great cakes of France. Its popularity is possibly enhanced by the great French writer Marcel Proust.
In 1913, Proust published the first volume of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past” his colossal novel about the belle époque, Paris, art and memory. He wrote:
“…one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea… I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses…”
What a write up! And, the perfect way to eat this little cake is clearly described – dipped in tea like a biscuit!
The classic recipe for madeleines is very simple and easy to make at home and there are lots of variations like this recipe for madeleines with pistachios from great French chef Daniel Galmiche. To make them you will require the correct baking tray to give them their distinctive shell shape – bon appétit!
Croissants – a hazy history and not even French!
Great French cakes – the Saint Honoré, in honour of the Patron Saint of French bakers
Charles Quint’s Finger – a French cake with a most unusual history