Madeleines

Madeleines are tiny Genoese sponge cakes that get their distinctive shape from special shell-shaped baking molds. While the exact origin of the name “madeleine” is uncertain, it is known that the little cakes most likely originated in France sometime in the 18th century.

This recipe for madeleines comes from Charles Elmé Francatelli’s 1846 cookbook, The Modern Cook. Although he was born in London, Francatelli trained in Paris under the famous French chef Antonin Carême , and his book includes many French recipes such as madeleines in addition to more English fare.

Like many people, I first learned about Francatelli from his character on the TV show Victoria. While he was a real chef and he did work for Queen Victoria, the show gets a few things wrong about his life: he only worked for Queen Victoria for one year, from 1841 to 1842, and he never married Mrs. Skerrett, Queen Victoria’s dresser (in 1870, at age 65, he married a woman named Elizabeth Cooke). Plus, the show just doesn’t do justice to the real Francatelli’s muttonchops:

Actor Ferdinand Kingsley as Francatelli in Victoria
The real Charles Elmé Francatelli, drawn by Auguste Hervieu and engraved by Samuel Freeman c. 1846

Francatelli wrote four cookbooks over his lifetime, each of which ran to multiple editions. The Modern Cook was the first.

Modern redaction (half of original recipe):

  • 4 oz each of flour, sugar, and melted butter
  • two eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 tbsp brandy
  • 2 tbsp candied lemon or citron peel, chopped small
  1. Whisk the eggs together with the sugar, salt, and brandy for about 5-10 minutes, or until mixture reaches the “ribbon” stage.
  2. Gently fold in the sifted flour, a little bit at a time, and the candied peel.
  3. Pour in the melted butter and gently fold it in.
  4. Most modern recipes will tell you to refrigerate the batter for at least 30 minutes before baking it; Francatelli’s recipe does not. I split the difference and only refrigerated the batter while I was preheating the oven and preparing the pans, for about 15 minutes.
  5. Brush your molds with melted butter, then place a heaping tablespoon of batter in each madeleine mold.
  6. Bake at 375 degrees for about 12-14 minutes.
  7. Turn out of the pans onto a cooling rack and dust with powdered sugar, if desired – Francatelli doesn’t call for this in the original recipe, but it makes them look pretty.

This made 16 madeleines – if you have a standard 12-space madeleine mold, like me, you will need to clean out the pan in between batches.

Tasting notes:

I cut the original recipe in half because I had heard that leftover madeleines quickly get stale and hard, and I didn’t want to make too many. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to test this out, since mine were all gone in about ten minutes! In other words, yes, they were delicious.

I did not quite achieve the distinctive “hump” that madeleines are supposed to get as they rise, but mine did have some lift and they still tasted quite light and delicate. The brandy flavor was perfect – just the right amount. The citrus flavor was present, although perhaps a little too subtle. I used a mix of candied lemon and citron peel, as most 19th-century recipes I’ve seen suggest. Most modern madeleine recipes call for fresh lemon zest – this would definitely result in a bolder citrus flavor. I might try using lemon zest in the future, but I would use a smaller amount so it doesn’t overwhelm the madeleines.

I also discovered while making this recipe that my oven is wildly uneven. The madeleines on one side of the pan were crisping up nicely while the others were still soft and pale. I ended up removing the most well-done ones early, while leaving the others in a little longer. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter much – they all tasted amazing whatever their degree of doneness.

In conclusion: madeleines are definitely worth keeping a special pan around for.

References:

Ayto, John. (2012). Madeleine. In The diner’s dictionary: Word origins of food & drink. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baker, A. (2004, September 23). Francatelli, Charles Elmé (1805–1876), chef and writer on cookery. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Francatelli, C. (1846). The modern cook. London: Richard Bentley. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Modern_Cook/kMlEEwk4zf0C?hl=en&gbpv=0

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