Many years ago, when I first arrived in Paris as a young and foolish student, my means were low but my pretensions grand. I had recently skim-read the first volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu and believed I was ready to take the salons of the French capital by storm. While I waited for literary recognition I decided to get into the spirit of things and have my very own proustian, madeleine-related revelation at the earliest opportunity.
I rushed to the nearest Monoprix—a kind of Gallic Big Bazaar but more depressing—grabbed a bag of madeleines and dashed back to my dingy little garret. I rustled up a lime flower tisane and sat down to dunk. Carefully, reverentially—I probably closed my eyes in silent contemplation of the great literary genius I was surely about to become—I dipped the dainty shell-shaped sponge into the tea and waited. Nothing. Or perhaps worse than nothing: soggy cake. For Proust’s narrator—“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake…a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place”—the memories released by the taste of his tea-soaked madeleine were powerful enough to fill seven volumes. I tried and tried to feel something important but was eventually forced to concede there was only faint disgust at a sweet little cake rapidly disintegrating into a greenish liquid.
Ever since, I’ve avoided eating madeleines, probably because of the painful reminder of the lofty academic heights I never reached. But also, frankly, the traditional version, when stripped of all its proustian pretension, is a bit boring. The recipe is believed to date back to 1755 and the town of Commercy, when Duke Stanislaus Leszczynski became enchanted by the wares of a local peasant girl named Madeleine. The young lady’s legacy lives on in the form of an immutable two-bite morsel made from sugar, flour, melted butter and eggs, usually lightly flavoured with lemon. And for over three centuries not much has changed. Of course, there’s the occasional heated flare-up over whether the “head”, the little bump on one side, is authentic or not. And there’s the odd rumour of a Parisian baker daring to daub a newfangled lemon glaze, but that’s usually as far as innovation goes. Stuck forever in 18th century provincial France, there has been no macaroon-type makeover for poor little madeleine.Last week, however, I was working on some new recipes for an Oriental tea party I’m organizing and decided I wanted to include madeleines—their size makes them ideal for afternoon tea; small enough to feel no guilt about eating half a dozen. But in their traditional form they are far too bland for an event where strong and vibrant flavours will be called for.
With some trepidation, I toyed with a few more modest adjustments—lemon grass, kaffir lime—before resolutely striding down a bolder path. And, you know, I think I may have finally liberated the madeleine. Replacing the traditional lemon with tamarind offers an exotic and mysterious Chinese tea-house tang, while the rose-water icing offers a reassuring echo of proustian parlours.
The cakes retain their turn-of-the-century airiness but hint at adventures ahead and new memories to make.
Try dipping them in some lime flower tea—you never know what might happen.
Tamarind madeleines with rose-water icing
Makes about 36 depending on the size of your moulds
100g unsalted butter
90g tamarind paste
140g plain flour
A pinch of salt
4 large eggs
140g vanilla sugar or caster sugar
150g well-sifted icing sugar
3 tbsp rose water
You will need a madeleine mould tray. I used a silicon one and the cakes popped out without any need for greasing. If using a metal tray, grease well with butter. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius, gas mark 5.
Gently heat the butter in a small pan until just melted, then put aside to cool completely.
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Put the eggs and sugar into another large bowl and using a hand-held mixer (or a hand whisk and very strong wrists), whisk until the mixture becomes as thick and pale as mayonnaise.
When you lift the whisk, the mixture should leave a trail on the surface. The mixture will by now have puffed up into a glorious, bouffant froth—this could take up to 7 minutes but is crucial to give the madeleines their characteristic almost not-there quality.
Gently, so the egg mixture doesn’t deflate, sprinkle over the flour and fold in. Then fold in the cooled melted butter and tamarind paste until all the ingredients are completely blended.
Put about 2 tsp of the mixture into each madeleine mould—don’t fill to the top because the cakes will rise in the oven.
Bake for 10-11 minutes until the top of the madeleines spring back when touched, then turn them out on to a rack to cool.
Make the icing by mixing the rose water with the icing sugar until you have a smooth paste. With a teaspoon drizzle the icing over the ridged side of the cooled madeleines. I also made a batch with a lemon and cardamom icing but I may have been pushing my luck with the purists.
Click here for a step by step slideshow of how to make tamarind madeleines