Talk about madeleines and you have to mention Proust. Whether you have read the complete works or not. His madeleine moment as revelation of the past – one bite and he is lost in the world of his grandmother – has marked the little shell formed cake as a Poetic Food. Like Hemingway’s oysters.
I don’t understand the appeal of either. I won’t start on oysters, slimy things, but madeleines have never been very exciting. Dry sponge cakes, intended to be dipped in tea to liven them up. (Tilleul tea for Marcel.) We tried once, fresh in our first year enthusiasm for Modern Languages, but were disappointed, underwhelmed. It’s my middle name, I should like them.
So I tried again: butter sizzled until it gives off the scent of hazelnuts, honey melted into milk, eggs and sugar and sifted flour. The raw batter tastes like salted caramel fudge, scraped thick off the spoon.
This doesn’t feel like a madeleine moment. It’s just home: a pot of redbush tea in my favourite green Harrods teapot. The charming flatmate just returned from Mexico, sombreros and tequila flung arround the apartment. Outside it’s raining, inside there is a hyacinth still shut up. Part of the too-modern generation, we are of course on our laptops. Someone will get up to pour more tea, to pinch another nut brown madeleine.
Maybe eventually I will look back on this as peaceful moment: we are rich enough to afford to buy butter and sugar, young enough to worry only about the next day.
But if I do remember this boring Wednesday, these particular madeleines deserve a little limelight. They have lacy edges, tender centres soft with an excess of brown sugar. Straight out of the oven, they are perfect. I made just enough for now so as not to risk sad dry shells tomorrow. In any case, the batter rests well overnight: better to make more, fresh, to enjoy tomorrow. Maybe the sun will shine too.
Brown sugar brown butter madeleines
160g brown sugar
240g plain flour
10g baking powder
Melt the butter in a small saucepan: keep an eye on it as it sizzles and foams. When it starts to smell toasty and forms brown specks at the bottom, remove from the heat.
Sift the flour and baking powder together. In a small mug, mix the honey and milk. if the honey is hard, heat briefly in the microwave. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the brown sugar until thick and paler than before. (I like to do this over a pan of simmering water – the eggs thicken and the sugar dissolves quicker.) Stir in the milk mixture and then the flour. Add the hot butter little by little, stirring well.
Leave to rest in the fridge while you heat the oven to 200C and grease some madeleine moulds with more melted butter. Fill the moulds to just below the brim. Bake for 5 minutes then turn the trays around so they cook evenly and cook for another 5 minutes. Mine took 15 total, but it depends on the oven. They are done when puffed up, form to the touch and a skewer stuck in them comes out clean, free of batter.
Cool in the moulds for 10 minutes. Eat the same day, serve with tea. Any remaining batter can be kept in the fridge for 48 hours for another teatime.