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Exploring Madeleines: A Brief Biography + 10 Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Delicate golden madeleine cookies

Delicate golden madeleine cookies

What Is a Madeleine?

A madeleine (MADD-uh-linn) is a small French sponge cake the size of a cookie; it has a distinctive shell shape and is baked in a mold. That sounds pretty ordinary, but the biography of this little morsel is anything but ordinary.

Which Story Do You Believe?

To say that the madeleine is legendary is an understatement, for sure. There are many stories of how this little cake was invented. Which one is your favorite?

  • Jean Avice was a pastry chef for Prince Talleyrand. (Yes, he has a place in the encyclopedia, so he was kind of a big deal). Avice was considered the master of choux pastry (the stuff of which cream puffs and chocolate eclairs are made). It is said that he baked the little cakes in aspic molds. (But this story gives no explanation of how or why they were named madeleines).
  • King Louis XV paid a visit to Stanislaus I, the Duke of Lorraine. Madeleine Paulmier, a cook for the duke, offered a tray of delicate small cakes to the King. He adored them, shared them with his wife, Marie, and she in turn introduced them to France. (How did she obtain the recipe? Did she hire Madame Paulmier, kidnap her, raid the pantry? We will never know).
  • Long ago (in the 18th century), an unnamed bakery paid a “very large sum of money” for a recipe. The recipe was for delicate little cakes that the unnamed bakery sold in oval boxes as a souvenir of the area. (OK, but we still don’t have an explanation for the name).
  • Then there’s this one that has a bit more believability (at least it proffers an explanation for the name of the cake). In the French town of Commercy, there was a convent dedicated to St. Mary Magdelene. During the French Revolution, all convents and monasteries were abolished. The nuns in residence sold their recipe to the highest bidder. I'm guessing that the highest bidder was the "unnamed bakery" above.

Despite all of this, the madeleine did not gain any real recognition until Marcel Proust wrote of them:

"Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind."

— Marcel Proust

With these words, Proust began In Search of Lost Time, a narrative of his memories. His aunt’s house in Combray, had been a childhood place of comfort and refuge. And then, he offers this:

"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."

— Marcel Proust

Proust goes on to describe how the taste and aroma of those madeleines unleashed a flood of childhood memories and transported him back to a happier time that he thought had been “permanently dead.” Philosophers state that throughout life we will encounter memories of long ago with just a musical notation, a photograph, an aroma, or a taste on the tongue. This is a "madeleine moment."

1. Perfect Madeleines: Recipe + How to Make Them

Chocolate madeleines

Chocolate madeleines

2. Chocolate Madeleines

These chocolate madeleines are part brownie, part traditional madeleine. They're a not-too-sweet, rich, dark treat that grownups and kids will like; wonderful as is, or with a dusting of powdered sugar.

If you're feeling especially festive or indulgent, dip them in chocolate (white would make a stunning contrast) and sprinkle with your favorite chopped nut. Pistachios, perhaps?

Blueberry madeleines

Blueberry madeleines

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3. Blueberry Madeleines

As I write this, my blueberry bushes are just now starting to come into season. There are a few dusty blueberries to be had this very moment, but I'd guess that about 90 percent are still green. We just need another week or so of warm sunny weather and then there will be an explosion of blueberries. The slender limbs will bow under the weight of those juicy blue orbs (many the size of a garbanzo bean, or even larger).

There will be blueberry pies (of course), crumbles, jam, and even barbecue sauce. But I'll save a few for these sweet blueberry madeleines.

This recipe uses fresh berries, simply pushing a fresh berry or two into the batter just before it goes in the oven. If you don't have blueberries, other bits of fresh fruit would work too. Here are a few suggestions—raspberries, blackberries, strawberry pieces. In a pinch, a few chocolate chips would work for me too!

Lavender French  madeleines

Lavender French madeleines

4. Lavender French Madeleines

Bring on springtime with these floral scented and flavored lavender French madeleines. Yes, lavender is edible—it's one of the ingredients that gives herbes de Provence their unusual taste. The author of this recipe makes a simple glaze with water and confectioners sugar. I would suggest using fresh lemon juice.

Lime and coconut madeileines

Lime and coconut madeileines

5. Lime and Coconut Madeleines

There are certain flavor combinations that seem to be a "match made in Heaven"— chocolate and peanut butter, caramel and flaked sea salt, lemon and blueberry, and of course lime and coconut.

These lime and coconut madeleines are a taste of the tropics, and perfect for a summertime tea or brunch.

Pumpkin madeleines

Pumpkin madeleines

6. Pumpkin Madeleines

The comforting flavors of fall shine in these pumpkin madeleines. They're moist and tender and sweetened with an irresistible maple glaze.

Cappuccino madeleines

Cappuccino madeleines

7. Cappuccino Madeleines

Dorie Greenspan is a five-time James Beard award–winning cookbook author. She was recently inducted into the Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America. A columnist for the New York Times Magazine, Dorie was recently awarded an Order of Agricultural Merit from the French government for her outstanding writing on the foods of that country.

Of course, she would bake perfect madeleines, cappuccino-flavored madeleines.

Bacon, cheddar, and jalapeño madeleines

Bacon, cheddar, and jalapeño madeleines

Bacon, Cheddar, and Jalapeño Madeleines

Are you ready for a savory treat? Really, madeleines don't always need to be a sweet treat. These bacon, cheddar, and jalapeño madeleines are a great go-along with an adult beverage, as an accompaniment to a bowl of chili, or as a side with a salad.

Vegan madeleines

Vegan madeleines

Vegan Madeleines

Aren't these cakes adorable? (Honestly, my piping skills aren't that good). Even if you haven't passed Piping 101, you can still make these vegan madeleines because what counts is how they taste. Pure vanilla enhances their sweetness, and lemon zest brings a bright pop of flavor.

Gluten-free lemon madeleines

Gluten-free lemon madeleines

10. Gluten-Free Lemon Madeleines

Gluten-free all-purpose flour makes these little cakes safe for those who cannot tolerate gluten, but that adjustment doesn't affect the texture. These gluten-free lemon madeleines are tender, with a buttery crumb and moist interior.

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© 2021 Linda Lum

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