Wednesday, December 3, 2008

In Search of Madeleines: Part 2 ~the Modern Twists

~by guest writer AlbertCAN

‘Tis should have been with a more grandiose setting, but one of the defining moments of my life took place in a non-descript evening when I was only eight. My father, tired of all the usual derivative comedy sketches the television had to offer, bluntly declared that all variations in life were merely the combination and the recombination of existing ideas. Being a researcher at a prestigious national laboratory, he promptly recalled how his fellow researchers simply grouped existing ideas and transformed them with an interesting twist. Voilà! A new idea would be born if one only looked at the past hard enough.Few people may consider my late father as a genius in disguise but I am starting to see how his theory has grown on me. (Years ago, unable to explain my father’s difficult life, an astrologer could only utter that my father was meant to be, figuratively speaking, a water dragon untimely stranded on a shallow beach. Sadly, such a poetic remark couldn’t have been more appropriate.) While I don’t agree with everything my father had to offer, his minute lecture on the way of innovation year ago has stuck with me to this day.

Yes, truly revolutionary ideas notwithstanding I now believe the revolving idea underneath all this shall be neatly summed by the insightful French proverb “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” [The more things change, the more they remain the same.] Actually, such caveat is necessary when exploring the modern incarnations of the legendary madeleines—perhaps such a paradigm will allow the offerings to sound less sacrilegious. After all, as Baudelaire might say, the silent muse has her mysterious, fickle ways…But how can a classic French delicacy, given its intricate negotiation of gastronomic ratios, manage to produce a gamut of modern incarnations? Surprisingly enough, I believe the infinite variations of madeleine have something to do with its easy-going nature: while the cakes do not withstand the test of time once baked, the master recipe itself is shockingly reliant. During the research stage of my writing I have tried almost all the quasi-Frankenstein gastronomic experimentations on the cakes—a tad less of sugar here, a larceny of butter (yes, I even used soft-spread margarine with a 5% fat content), a wild swap of exotic flavours, a change of mixing process…and time after time the madeleines rise to the challenge. Sure, sometime the cakes sulk when I ask too much, leaving me with depressingly sunken hunchbacks (yes, I’m not kidding)—but never once had I failed to produce tender, flavourful morsels that couldn’t delight the people around me. I even got lucky a few times and discovered lovely twists along the way—you can too so long the following guidelines are followed:

Locate fail-proof, all-purpose master recipes first: follow the instructions very carefully before venturing on your own. DO NOT EXPERIMENT WITH THE FUNDEMENTS UNTIL YOU KNOW THE MASTER RECIPES INSIDE AND OUT.
When experimenting with your own twist the general ratio of wet ingredients (sugar, egg, butter, flavouring agents) and dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, occasional flavouring agents) must be held relatively constant. If you work with a top-notch master recipe a benign switch of equivalent ingredients from time to time shall not deflate the results. (God knows how many times I have switched the flavours due to a random change of heart.) However, hell shall have no fury like an ill-proportioned batch of madeleines that refuse to come out of the pan!
Carefully (and I do mean carefully) record your changes so the results can be replicated once successful—or promptly head back to the drawing board if the result is less than satisfactory.
Be honest upon evaluating the success of the variation. A great madeleine recipe must produce plump cakes with a soft, airy texture with an intricate aroma. Any flavour that gets lost in the asthmatics of egg and butter, no matter how precious in the first place, shouldn’t be recognized as a success. Worse, any flavour that refuses to blend in shall be a Proustian nightmare!

So how diverse can the modern madeleines be? Well, by the virtue of straight-on ingredient substitutions the lemon zest flavour can be switched into almost any other citrus flavour—orange, clementine, tangerine, mandarin varieties can be quite common. (On the other hand I haven’t tried grapefruit, yuzu and pomelo, so I can’t comment on those versions.) The classic madeleine can even shed its vanilla image by, well, getting rid of its vanilla extract element by choosing to be scented with rose, neroli or lavender water. Moreover, chefs have even engineered gastronomic hybridizations by blending elements of madeleines with another French classic: financier.
The colourful past of the financiers should be duly noted before progressing further. A financier, simply put, is a tea cake marked by the addition of almond, icing sugar, and/or beurre noisette (caramelized butter), traditionally baked in coin-shaped rectangular moulds since it became popular in the chic financial district which immediately surrounded the old Bourse Paris, the financial heart of the French capital that pulsed at its own rhythm blocks away from the iconic La Madeleine. The financiers are said to have received their name due to the patronage of the rich bankers, whose waistlines undoubtedly plumped up with a few unabashed servings of these plump cakes. (The French people, above all, aren’t short of a dry sense of humour.)[*]

With the information above I have here a humble fruit of labour: a hybrid between a madeleine and a financier recipe. Originally I used orange blossom water for flavouring, but the black sheep within ended up using osmanthus syrup instead. The transcendence of the osmanthus aroma has been widely noted (including in my blog when I did a review on Hermès Osmanthe Yunnan). A quick word on osmanthus flavouring, however: I used osmanthus syrup (糖桂花), which is free of salt and preserved plum unlike the traditional osmanthus paste (桂花醬). Actually, I dislike osmanthus paste so much that I wouldn’t use it in a million years! I got my osmanthus syrup (below), from T&T Supermarket, the Asian-Canadian supermarket chain here in Canada, although I’m sure any respectable Asian specialty grocery store shall carry it. If you can’t find it then simply substitute the osmanthus syrup with orange blossom water, although the flavour shall obviously be different.

Anyhow, the recipe:
Orange Almond Madeleines with Osmanthus

1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup blanch almond, finely grounded
3/4 tsp. double-acting baking power (do not use regular)
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup of sugar
Grated zest of ¼ sweet orange
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp. osmanthus syrup
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

To bake the new madeleines, simply make the following substitutions in the traditional madeleine recipe:

1. Blend the 1/3 cup of all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup blanch almond with the double-acting baking powder and salt.
2. Substitute the lemon zest with orange zest: add the orange with the osmanthus syrup when mixing them with sugar.
Follow the rest of the instruction as is and you shall be rewarded with something close to the following batch I made a few days ago. (Sorry about the excessive dusting of flour—it was about 5 A.M. by the time I finished baking these…)

Well, as you might have noticed I mentioned a generic variation first, for my fidgeting of the traditional recipe shall pale in comparison to Pierre Hermé’s daring chocolate madeleines recipe, almost a hybrid between a devil’s food cake and…something else altogether: given the rich chocolate flavour the cake is surprisingly chocolate-free, relying only on a few tablespoons of cocoa powder to do the trick. In fact, I now consider this to be the Serge Lutens of madeleines, for the simple ingredients yield a multitude of effects that are simply beyond description: the lemon simply floats above the dense flavour, providing just the right contrast to the chocolate flavour. Moreover, the chocolate madeleines store extremely well—these are the only ones that won’t become sticky in room temperature. Quite the opposite: the chocolate madeleines may become a little dry but it’s perfect for Proustian dipping!
Since I’m reviewing the recipe I shall simply type out the instruction. The following is from “Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé” by Dorie Greenspan: I shall complete my review of this recipe after quoting the instruction.

Chocolate and Lemon Madeleines by Pierre Hermé

An overnight rest in the refrigerator is what gives these madeleines that characteristic bump in the center. If you’re in a hurry, chill them for an hour—you won’t get as pronounced a bump, but the cookies will bake better for the hill. (Pierre Hermé)

½ cup plus 1 tablesppon (70 grams) all-purpose flour
3 ½ tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona
½ teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons (90 grams) sugar
Pinch of salt
Grated zest of ¼ lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
6 ½ tablespoons (3 ¼ ounces; 100 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1. Sift together the flour, cocoa, and baking powder and set aside. Put the sugar, salt, and lemon zest in a medium bowl and rub everything together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist, grainy, and very aromatic.
2. Using a whisk, beat the eggs into the lemon-sugar until the mixture is blended. Squish the butter through your fingers or smear it under the heel of your hand to create what is called a pomade and add it to the bowl. Still working with the whisk, beat in the butter just to get it evenly distributed. Gently whisk in the sifted flour mixture, stirring only until the flour is incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and chill it overnight before baking. The overnight rest helps the cookies develop the characteristic bump on their backs; if you don’t have time for an overnight rest, try to give the batter at least an hour in the refrigerator.
3. When you are ready to bake the cookies, center a rack in the oven and pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius). Butter a 12-mold madeleine pan, then dust the molds with flour, tapping out the excess. (Even if you have a non-stick madeleine pan, it’s a good idea to butter and flour the molds.)
4. Divide the batter evenly among the madeleine molds. Don’t worry about flattening the batter—the heat will do that. Place the pan in the oven, insert a wooden spoon in the door to keep it slight ajar, and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Bake the cookies for 13 to 15 minutes, or until they are domed and spring back when pressed lightly. Unmold the cookies onto a work surface—you may have to rap the madeleine pan against the counter to release the cookies—then transfer them to a rack to cool to room temperature.

Makes 12 cookies

Keeping: Madeleines can be kept at room temperature in an airtight tin for about 2 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks.

I’ve been baking using the recipe above for almost a year now and it’s just generally a dream to work with…except two minute details. Firstly, I find the butter-smearing process a bit of a nightmare to execute, for the lumps of butter require extra elbow grease in order to incorporate the fat into the batter. (Eventually I simply just melt the butter and blend it as is, which works out just as well in my humble opinion.) Secondly, a temperature-related issue: I find the oven-door-jamming trick, as ingenious as it is, to be too much a hassle for me, so I just set my oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

So does the chocolate recipe allow one to substitute an infinite variety of citrus zest, just like the original madeleine? Unfortunately, no. So far the lemon works best: the others simply become too muted in the end. Even lime and mandarin zests become very subtle in comparison to the chocolate flavour. I have, however, enjoyed a strange pleasure of blending the recipe with its companion, tea…

You see, while specs of unfurled tea leaves can be unsightly when shown against the primrose-tinted classic madeleines, the dark chocolate backdrop generally hides the tea. In fact, the combination is so elegant that I am considering forgoing the pain-staking zest-grating process altogether! While Darjeeling tea and Earl Grey tea works reasonably well, my favorite is actually masala chai. Somehow the combination produces very subtly spicy cakes with an interesting texture: it is actually a pleasure to bite into fine pieces of clove and ginger. So with the modifications above I present you the third variation based on the recipe by Pierre Hermé:

Masala Chai Chocolate Madeleines

½ cup plus 1 tablesppon (70 grams) all-purpose flour
3 ½ tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona
½ teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons (90 grams) sugar)
Pinch of salt
2 tsps of chai tea[†]
2 large eggs, at room temperature
6 ½ tablespoons (3 ¼ ounces; 100 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, melted

1.Sift together the flour, cocoa, and baking powder: set aside. Using another bowl, blend the sugar, salt, and chai tea together thoroughly.

2.Using a whisk, beat the eggs and incorporate into the chai-sugar mixture. Still working with the whisk, barely beat in the melted butter. Gently whisk in the sifted flour mixture, gently stir until the flour mixture is fully incorporated, care not to overbeat the batter. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and chill it for at least one hour before use, although best to refrigerate it overnight.

3.Prior to baking center a rack in the oven and pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Carefully utter a 12-mold madeleine pan, dusting the molds with flour and tapping out the excess.

4.Divide the batter evenly among the madeleine molds. Bake the cookies for 13 to 15 minutes or until they are domed and spring back when pressed lightly. Unmold the cookies onto a work surface and transfer them to a rack to cool to room temperature.

Makes 12 cookies

Anyhow, my batch looks like this…

So with the infinite varieties of modern madeleines, I hope this post has inspired you come up with your own set of variations: who knows, maybe these cakes will enrich your aromatic memories as well!

Photos: Osmanthus syrup from, madeleine photos by AlbertCAN.
[*] Poilâne, one of the famous boulengeries in Paris, makes a chic shortbread cookie sinisterly titled “Punitions” (Punishment), a wink to the consequences if one gives in one too many times.
[†] You may need to quickly grind the tea if the spices are a bit chunky for your taste, although I have never had such problems. I prefer using organic chai tea. You might want to toast the tea in a small saucepan before use, though I often don’t do so for the sake of simplicity.


  1. Well...gets one back to wondering if 'there is nothing new under the sun,' or 'there is more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'

    Either way, the pondering is made nicer by a good recipe. Thank you for sharing yours.

  2. Albert -- I am so excited about the possibility of finding osmanthus syrup, I can barely contain myself! Let alone the possibility of osmanthus-flavoured madeleines. I imagine having it with a lovely cup of tea with a dab of apricot preserves, and having an Osmanthe Yunnan afternoon.

  3. S,

    good point...And good food makes everything nicer somehow, doesn't it?

  4. J,

    I am sure Albert will be thrilled about your excitement on his "twists".
    Bon Appétit!


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