Perfect, dainty madeleines are just the thing when you know you're craving something sweet but can't decide between a cookie or a slice of cake. They are a classic, refined butter sponge cake—perfect for tea time (don't forget to dunk), or as an accompaniment to ice cream or fruit when served at dessert. They've long been popular in the fancy set of restaurants that serve petit fours post-dessert, and they've received a well-deserved revival at pastry chef Dominique Ansel's namesake bakery in New York City where they bake them to order, so the cakes may be enjoyed fresh from the oven.
The delicate, buttery crumb of a madeleine demands careful mixing and resting before the cakes can be baked. To make the batter, the eggs are beaten with sugar for several minutes until they become very smooth and light in color. Next, flour and melted butter are carefully folded into the egg mixture, with a touch of baking powder for leavening. It is crucial that the batter be chilled for a length of time to allow the flour to hydrate without being over-mixed. There are many variations on the standard recipe for madeleine, and they may be flavored with the addition of zests, spices, vanilla beans, extracts, cocoa powder, or ground nuts.
When making madeleines:
- Fold the flour and butter in carefully, to avoid developing gluten.
- Grease the madeleine molds well with butter, then dust the buttered molds with either flour or sugar so that the cakes will easily release after baking.
- Be sure to give the batter time to rest and chill in the fridge.
- Mounding on the back of the cakes is normal and completely expected—don't panic if your madeleines have little humps on their backs
Keep scrolling for a step-by-step tutorial and best practices for making madeleines. Then try making some yourself using this recipe for Vanilla Bean Madeleines (which can easily be adapted for other flavors), based on an original by Dorie Greenspan.
Dainty bites of cake
Madeleines are classic, French butter sponge cakes baked in the shape of seashells. They are most often flavored with subtle notes of lemon zest or vanilla, but variations on the recipe can incorporate bold spices, cocoa, or ground nuts. Click through the slideshow to learn how to make this tea time staple.
Madeleines are of few ingredients, so maximizing flavor is important. Dorie Greenspan has a wonderful trick: rubbing zest and granulated sugar together before mixing to fully release all of the zest's oils for great flavor. Here I am doing the same with the seeds scraped from a vanilla bean.
Beat the eggs and sugar
Madeleines are in the sponge cake family. Like many other sponge cakes, the mixing method calls for the sugar and eggs to be beaten together for several minutes, until the eggs are a very light yellow and much of the sugar has dissolved. When combining sugar and eggs, take care not to let the mixture stand. If eggs and sugar are allowed to sit without being vigorously mixed, the sugar will pull the water out of the eggs, causing them to "burn" and small, hard chunks to form.
Carefully fold in flour, then butter
The tender, buttery crumb of a madeleine is the result of careful mixing. Once the sugar and eggs have been mixed, the flour and baking powder are gently folded into the mixture by hand. It gets folded to avoid over-mixing, which will make the madeleines tough. Once the flour is mostly incorporated, follow suit with the melted butter, and fold until the batter is smooth and even.
Cover and chill
Transfer the batter to a container that can be sealed with an airtight lid. Press plastic wrap against the surface of the batter, then seal with a lid. Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. This chilling will allow the gluten to relax and the flour to fully hydrate.
Grease the pan
Apply a good amount of melted butter to the madeleine molds. You may use your hands, a paper towel, or a pastry brush.
Flour or sugar the greased pans
Sprinkle a little flour or sugar into the cavities, and tilt the pan around to evenly coat the molds with a thin layer of flour or granulated sugar (both will help prevent sticking, the granulated sugar will help create a bit of a caramelized, crisp outer crust). Invert the pan and bang out any excess. Chill the mold for at least 15 minutes.
Filling the molds
Using a teaspoon, portion the batter into the molds. The amount will vary based on the size of the mold, but aim to fill it almost to the top. Spread it evenly along the bottom of the mold, but don't be too concerned with distribution—the heat from the oven will do a lot of that work for you.
Bake and watch carefully
Madeleines get a short bake in a relatively hot oven. Watch them carefully. They will be fully baked when you press the top and it springs back, and from that point you may want to bake them a bit more or not, depending on the level of caramelization you desire. The French prefer almost no color at all, but I like mine a bit more well done to bring out some caramel flavor.
Remove the madeleines from the oven and allow them to sit for one minute in the pan. Then rap the pan against the counter to loosen the madeleines, and use a knife to gently nudge any stubborn cakes from their molds.
Cooling and storage
Allow the madeleines to cool for five additional minutes before serving (if you'd like to serve them warm), or allow them to cool completely and place them in an airtight container to store.
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