Cookies and tea are a classic pairing, made only more special by the type of cookie served. Many like buttery shortbread or crisp tea crackers, but I like delicate tea cakes. Madeleines, originating from Commercy, France, are the quintessential tea cake—they aren't after all cookies. Baked in scalloped shell molds, the tiny cakes plump up, creating a hump on top. When viewed from the side, they almost look like mini submarines. These are the best confections to enjoy with afternoon tea.
Marcel Proust popularized madeleines by writing about them in volume 1 of his novel Remembrance of Things Past. The tea cake has been a part of tea-drinking culture in western Europe ever since. Made from an airy spongecake-like batter, the petite cakes are delicate, soft, fluffy, and, well, cake-like. Biting into one is probably as close as anyone will come to biting into a cloud. It's easy to buy madeleines from the bakery or Starbucks on the corner, but it's quite successful to make them at home following this recipe.
Patience is the best virtue to have when baking madeleines. I should know after testing many batches before settling for nothing but the best version of the classic recipe. Beating the eggs until frothy and pale creates the sponge-like structure. Chilling the batter and the pan before baking helps create a more vigorous rise. Traditionally there is no baking powder in madeleines, so this recipe also has none. The success of the madeleines depends on the eggs and the careful following of the steps. Once baked, the bottom should be brown, the top, yellow and soft, and the edges, crisp. They are the best just warm out of the oven. Or keep them for a day or two in a sealed container.
Lemon and Brown Butter Madeleines
Note: This recipe can easily be doubled. Use 2 madeleine pans. Or bake in two batches. If doing so, the pan should be cleaned and buttered, floured, and frozen again. The second batch may not rise as high as the first.
1/4 cup unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon for pan
2 large eggs at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1/2 cup cake flour, plus more for pan
confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Melt 1/4 cup butter in a small saucepan over low heat until it starts to turn brown. Set aside to cool. Strain to remove large solids.
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add sugar gradually and continue to whisk until mixture is pale and ribbony. Stir in salt, vanilla, honey, and lemon zest. By hand, fold in the flour in three additions. Pour in brown butter and gently mix into the batter. Chill batter for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Liberally butter a madeleine pan with 1 tablespoon softened butter. Dust with flour and tap out the excess. Freeze pan for about 5 minutes or until ready to bake.
Spoon batter by the tablespoonful into each impression in the pan. Bake until golden brown and just crispy around the edges, about 9 minutes. The cakes should spring back when touched. Loosen each with the tip of a knife and immediately turn out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm, dusted with confectioners' sugar. Yield: 12 madeleines.