“And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary 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. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”
–Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu – 1913 (In Search of Lost Time)
This is a well-known excerpt from the French novelist Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which he details how a bite of a madeleine triggers a flood of childhood memories, when his aunt fed him madeleines with tea. (He was trying to use this story to illustrate the function of involuntary memory, which has since been somewhat invalidated, but that’s neither here nor there so long as I get to eat cake.) I remember having read this “episode of the madeleine” as a French major in college (let me tell you, THAT was useful); ironically, I don’t actually recall a damn thing about the book, but I had a vague recollection that there was a story about an epic madeleine! Go figure, that’s the only thing I would remember… His description of the effect of the tiny French cake on his senses is so rich and riveting that you can practically taste and smell it just by reading. Unfortunately, I have never personally related to his experience of madeleines; there are a number of other pastries that elicit that sort of unbridled confectionary passion for me, but not those. I generally find them dry, and I don’t care for the sponginess. Meh.
And so, I was very intrigued when I looked at this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe for Malted Madeleines from the Malted Milk Powder chapter of Baked Elements. Madeleine enthusiasts tend to be rather particular about their diminutive, scalloped cakes– they must be spongy, lightly golden, and have a hint of lemon or almond flavor. They are, by the way, not cookies– let me disabuse you of that blasphemous notion here and now! The recipe introduction for this rogue version specifically mentions that this is a not a madeleine for madeleine snobs. I love me some malt and chocolate, and I do adore little cakes, so if I’m going to like a madeleine, it should be this one. 😉
Madeleines seem like they should be fancy and complicated, but this batter comes together remarkably quickly and easily. The flour, malt powder, cocoa powder, and baking powder are whisked together, then sifted and folded into the wet ingredients. The only modification that I made here is that I added the malt powder at the very last second, and I sifted it over the flour/cocoa mixture before whisking it in. Why? Because malt powder has a nasty habit of clumping up and/or getting sticky when it comes into contact with, like, anything. (I believe that technically it’s a reaction to moisture, but it seems to stick whether it’s flour, hands, countertop, paper, whatever.) I readied the rest of the dry ingredients, then combined the eggs, sugar, and salt in the mixer until more or less frothy, about 3 minutes. (This could also be done by hand if you don’t want to dirty up the mixer just for this step.) The melted butter is then drizzled in and mixed.
Then I proceeded with the malt powder business– even just combining with other *dry* ingredients after sifting, there were still little granules of malt that had formed, but sifting seems to have prevented major clumping. Rogue madeleines or not, no one wants chunks of malt powder in their French cakes!
Oh, a note about malt powder, while I’m on the subject—there are two kinds of malt powder that one can use. The recipe calls for malted milk powder, which is cheaper and easily found in your local grocery store (Carnation, Ovaltine). This is the milder option, which imparts a fairly subtle layer of malt flavor. If, like me, you prefer your malt desserts to be super malt-tastic, it is worth your while to procure some non-diastatic malt powder, which will lend your baked goods a deeper, richer malty flavor. And that, my friends, is what I want. You can obtain this precious ingredient from King Arthur Flour, and I assure you that it’s worth the extra pennies.
Okay, so back to the madeleine batter. After incorporating the finicky malt powder into the rest of the dry mixture, I sifted everything into the egg/sugar mixture and carefully folded it in until it was a semi-thin, semi-homogenous batter. I say “semi” homogenous because there were still lots of small visible malt granules; this was somewhat worrisome, as I didn’t want grainy madeleines. However, my fretting was all for naught—after the prescribed 1-hour rest period at room temperature under a towel, the batter had undergone a lovely metamorphosis. After a quick stir with my trusty spatula, it was now thick, satiny, and totally smooth—no more malt bits! They had apparently dissolved while resting, and this batter was absolutely luscious.
I filled the shell-shaped wells of my buttered and floured madeleine pan about ¾ full. The recipe was supposed to make 24 tiny cakes, but the batter was just enough for 12. This was preferable actually, as I only have one madeleine pan, and as usual, I was baking late on a school night! So if you do want 24, make sure to double to recipe.
The madeleines baked up just beautifully in exactly 10 minutes—so easy. They should only sit in the cake molds for a minute before removal; since they are so tiny, carryover baking from the hot pan may over-bake them. Most of mine were a little stuck to the pan, so it actually took me several minutes to jimmy them out. Fortunately, every one of them came out intact, but I would definitely recommend handling the madeleines with extreme care.
The last step is a decorative dusting of cocoa and malt powders, which pretty much gets absorbed into the warm cakes.
So how did the little French darlings taste? Well, I had two different reactions to flavor and texture. Regarding taste, I thought they were absolutely lovely—a warm, malty-chocolaty flavor that I wanted to pair with coffee or hot chocolate. Neither of which I had at the time. YUM—I would absolutely make them again for their flavor (and I would make sure to secure the proper accompanying beverage).
The texture, on the other hand, left a bit to be desired, in my opinion. Like most madeleines that I’ve had before them, I was very disappointed to find that these were on the dry side. This could have been because they stuck to the pan and the exteriors crisped up too much, or I could have over-mixed the batter, or I could have left them in the oven 30-60 seconds too long. Or, maybe madeleines are supposed to be a little dry by nature, in order to absorb a dip in coffee or tea?? At any rate, they would be perfect if they were just a smidge less dry.
I should mention that visually they are SO PRETTY with their chocolaty brown color and shell scallops. Elegant and delicate, they are perfect for occasions like brunch, afternoon tea, bridal showers, etc. Alternatively, they make a great snack and will be coffee’s BFF at any time of day. Plus, they’re so small that you eat one without feeling guilty. (Or you can eat 5 and feel a little guilty—whatever works for you. ;-))
Overall I loved these, especially considering that madeleines are not a go-to pastry for me. I would definitely make them again, though I’d like to tinker a bit with the texture. If you like chocolate and malt, especially together, you will most likely love these too!
Head over to Baked Sunday Mornings for the Malted Madeleines recipe, and check out the other bloggers’ French cakes too!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.