Happy Mardi Gras! In honor of the holiday, we’re celebrating with some French history and buttery cookie-cakes. I give you, the madeleine.
The madeleine is most closely associated with the small town of Commercy, in the Lorraine region of eastern France. While no one knows for sure the true provenance of the madeleine, both nuns and royals are said to have had a hand in popularizing the cookie-sized cake.
Often the madeleine is associated with two different female bakers of the same name. Some histories suggest that the madeleine was simply named after a baker employed in the castle of Jean François Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz in Lorraine. However, this is probably the least likely story of all, as absolutely no evidence of such a baker named madeleine has been found, nor any evidence that a baker in the household had any hand in the creation of the dessert at all. It’s also unclear if the house the woman worked in belonged to the Cardinal at all.
A slightly more convincing story suggests that an exiled Polish King and his French king son-in-law may have played a part. In 1725, King Louis XV of France married Maria Leszczynska, the daughter of the former Polish King, Stanislaw I Leszczynski. After losing his throne, Stanislaw was given the Duchy of Lorraine. He established himself in the Chateau de Luneville, and it’s suggested that it was here that the first madeleine was created by a woman named Madeleine Paulmier. Legend has it that Madeleine was a baker in the Duke’s castle and that in 1755, after she had created the madeleine, the Duke’s son-in-law, King Louis XV of France, tasted the confection, fell in love with it, and introduced the new dessert to the Court of Versailles. Others say the Duke gave it to his daughter, Maria, the Queen of France, and that it was she who introduced it to the court. Some sources state that the cookies were named after the baker herself, while others say that the King named them for his wife, Maria, though why they would be called madeleines instead of marias is hard to say. (I wish that I could dig through some local records in Lorraine to see if there was any credibility to this claim. With both a first and last name, if this woman existed, certainly she should show up somewhere.)
The second suggestion is that madeleines were not created in Lorraine at all, but instead in the kitchen of Jean Avice, the cook to Prince Talleyrand in Paris. Avice is credited with the distinctive shell-shape of the cookie, achieved by baking the batter in aspic molds. This seems like a good argument in favor of Avice, but his recipe is often dated to the 19th century, and madeleines almost certainly existed before then. Recipes dating back to the mid-1700s have been found, and were already being made in other parts of France.
I think perhaps the most compelling argument for the cookie is not related to a baker named Madeleine at all, but rather to the faith of French nuns. The name Madeleine is the French form of “Magdalene,” as in Mary Magdalene, the follower of Jesus Christ. It is known that convents around France baked lots of things, which would support the theory that nuns were behind at least the name of the dessert, if not also the recipe. It also seems that Commercy, in particular, had a convent named after Mary Magdalene. After the convents of France were shut down in 1790, the nuns may have sold the madeleine recipe to bakers for a profit. This might also explain how it spread across France around that time. While it might be more romantic to imagine one baker named Madeleine creating the treat in a humble kitchen, the fact is pastries were already big business in the 1700s, particularly in France. Additionally, there is a popular cupcake-like dessert in Spain that closely resembles the madeleine, called a magdalena. It’s hard to say which dessert came first, but the Catholic link between the two countries and the similarity in names seems undeniable.
While the dessert has been popular in France for centuries, a mention in the 1920s by Marcel Proust, in his work In Search of Lost Time, may have been responsible for taking the cake’s popularity beyond the French border. In the work, he describes how the madeleine crumbs transport him back in time to his childhood (though, as Proust grew up more than 160 miles away from Commercy, one must assume that the cookie had already been popularized throughout France.)
Perhaps we will never know the true creator for sure, but you can add your own name to the history of the dessert, and make it yourself! For the recipe, you will need a bit of lead time: Once made, the batter should be refrigerated at least three hours. After that, things come together quickly, and what you’re left with is fluffy, buttery, and perfect straight from the oven, or cooled and glazed. Either way, they’re quite comfortable alongside a hot cup of coffee.
Madeleines with Blood Orange Glaze and Pistachios
Makes 12 full-size madeleines, or 24 mini madeleines.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp blood orange zest, optional
4 tbsp (or 1/4 cup) butter, melted, plus 1 tbsp butter, melted, to grease the pans
For topping, optional:
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
1 tsp blood orange juice
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped finely
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Add sugar and eggs to a large bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until thick and pale, about 2-3 minutes. Fold the vanilla and almond extracts and orange zest into the mixture until just combined.
Fold in the melted butter. Sift the flour mixture over the top and fold in until no dry streaks remain.
Press plastic wrap directly on top of the batter (as you would with homemade pudding) and refrigerate for at least three hours, or up to two days.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush melted butter into the shell molds in a madeleine pan (or a small muffin tin), freeze pan for 5 minutes, then brush the remaining melted butter on. Lightly flour each shell.
Fill molds almost all the way to the top, but not quite full. (Batter will will be thick, but will spread and even out as it bakes).
Bake for 10-12 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 10 minutes. Each cookie should spring back when you press your finger into the center.
Dust lightly with powdered sugar. Or, add about 1 tbsp of blood orange juice to 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar. Dip half of a (cooled) madeleine into the glaze, and immediately top with fresh, chopped pistachios.
Perhaps there is no more perfect dessert than a madeleine. Half cookie, half cake, a springy sponge cookie-cake that makes for a light-as-air dessert. It’s a perfect little two-bite, shell-shaped morsel, and it’s not hard to see why it went down in history.