In what is probably the most famous food-related passage in the history of prose, Marcel Proust waxes nostalgic about the madeleine. "The little scallop-shell of pastry," he writes, is "so richly sensual under its severe religious folds."
For Proust, the taste of the buttery, eggy madeleine (dipped in tea) recalls image upon image from his childhood, "as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people."
And so it's clear that the madeleine is no ordinary cookie, but one saddled with an extraordinary history. It has become so symbolic of French identity that it was chosen to represent the country at the Cafe Europe expo in 2006.
You would think, given all this hoopla, that the madeleine is hard to make. You'd be wrong. Nothing, really, could be easier. Yes, it's true - you do need the special, shell-shaped pan - but other than that, it's one of the simplest things you can bake. Add to that the opportunities for endless variety (add orange juice and zest, do the same with lemon, maybe infuse the butter with a bit of lavender), and you begin to understand the madeleine's enduring popularity, and also why it's my go-to afternoon treat.
The recipe I'm including here is the simplest version - play around with it, find variations you like. It's a small-batch recipe, since madeleines are best fresh out of the oven. However, it multiplies really easily, so if you're feeding a crowd, double and triple at will. This afternoon, I whipped up a honey-flavored batch.
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup of flour, sifted*
4 tbs. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus extra butter for greasing the pans
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Pre-heat the oven to 375°F and grease the madeleine pan(s), making sure to get butter in each little ridge.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar and salt until thick - this will take about 5-8 minutes, depending on your eggs.
Fold in the flour until well-combined, then quickly stir in melted butter and vanilla. Spoon the batter into the greased pan(s) and bake till slightly golden brown around the edges, and until the sponge bounces back when touched.
Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn the cookies out onto a plate or some parchment paper.
Makes a dozen large or 24 miniature madeleines.
*I'm normally not much of a stickler for sifting, but it's actually really important here if you want a fluffy, spongy cookie.