Many stories are attributed to the origins of the madeleine cake, a classic scallop shell-shaped confection that is perfectly designed for those – like me – who don’t possess a ‘sweet tooth’ but whom occasionally crave an exquisite bite of sweetness to savour alongside a delicate herbal tisane or a glittering crystal glass of chilled sparkling wine. I remember a time one Sunday afternoon, long after the chattering chaos of lunch had passed, enjoying a quiet moment in a corner of an old wine bar opposite L’église de la Madeleine in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. I was mesmerised by the vision of a young girl behind the bar quietly polishing glasses. One by one she pulled them from the shelf above her holding each against the dying sunlight in an almost forensic search for smudges. A brush of vermillion lipstick, a thumbprint left by a stranger who perhaps left too soon never to return, so many untold stories. My thoughts were at once broken by a starched waiter who, after presenting me with a pink plate upon which sat a solitary lemon madeleine, told me a story about a pilgrim named Madeleine who picked up the recipe on her way back from Compostela in Spain and who subsequently offered the little indulgences to pilgrims passing through region of Lorraine to which she returned to spread the word. From its humble beginnings, by the end of the 19th century, the madeleine was considered a staple of the diet of the French bourgeoisie – Elizabeth David described them as ‘the most beguiling of all petits fours’. I love that.
2 free-range eggs
100g caster sugar
100g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 Sicilian lemon, zested and juiced (you can, of course, use any kind of lemon but I find the subtle sweetness of the Sicilian variety works best)
100g of unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus a little extra for greasing
How I make it
Whisk together the eggs and the sugar until they are light and fluffy. Add all the other ingredients and gently combine with the same whisk on a low setting. Set aside for a few minutes.
In the meantime, heat an oven to 200C and lightly brush a 12-hole non-stick madeleine tray with melted butter.
Pour the cake batter into a large jug and carefully distribute it amongst the 12 moulds leaving a little space at the top for the sponges to rise. Place the tray in the oven and bake for 8-10 minutes until the mixture has risen a little in the middle and the cakes are pale gold in colour. Transfer the tin to a wire rack and leave to cool for a few minutes before removing each one with a flick of a finger.
To serve, place them on a pretty plate and dust with icing sugar.
The cakes should be eaten within a couple of hours after baking but they freeze very well. I like them for breakfast, as shown here, served with tangy Greek yoghurt stirred through with date molasses.