Dad's Madeleines: A Remembrance of Things Past

Madeleines are served with a dusting of confectioner's sugar or  a dip of creamy curd. i i

In a twist on a classic French treat, madeleines are served with a dusting of confectioner's sugar or a dip of creamy curd. Elizabeth Tannen/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Tannen/NPR
Madeleines are served with a dusting of confectioner's sugar or  a dip of creamy curd.

In a twist on a classic French treat, madeleines are served with a dusting of confectioner's sugar or a dip of creamy curd.

Elizabeth Tannen/NPR

About the Author

Elizabeth Tannen is an assistant editor at NPR's All Things Considered. Now that she has madeleines down, she is working to perfect her father's salad dressing. Unfortunately, she keeps losing the recipe and is too embarrassed to ask him for it again. Elizabeth lives in Washington, D.C., but spends as much time as possible in Brooklyn, where many of her favorite relatives, friends and pizza slices reside.

The madeleines bake in a special pan that imparts the traditional plump scallop shape. i i

The madeleines bake in a special pan that imparts the traditional plump scallop shape. Elizabeth Tannen/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Tannen/NPR
The madeleines bake in a special pan that imparts the traditional plump scallop shape.

The madeleines bake in a special pan that imparts the traditional plump scallop shape.

Elizabeth Tannen/NPR

Most 9-year-olds don't think too hard about their dessert.

When presented with something chocolate, oval-shaped and dusted with confectioner's sugar, they tend to just dig in, no questions asked. This certainly was the case with the chocolate madeleines my father prepared for me and my classmates when I was in grade school. Like sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving and hot fudge sundaes in summer, the madeleines were something I grew to find delicious, festive and, on certain occasions, entirely expected.

It was only years later that I realized there was anything unusual about his spin on the classic French cookie or that they had any literary connotation aside from their reliable presence at my third- and fourth-grade publishing parties. At these occasional celebrations, we would present our completed creative writing projects for peers and parents, and, of course, gorge ourselves on homemade sweets.

My father approaches his hobbies the way some people prepare for the LSAT: with obsessive, consuming intensity. That's how he took up baking during his first wife's fatal illness. The hours spent in the kitchen helped him bear those spent in the hospital.

He baked breads and pastries and, years later, his and my mother's wedding cake. And then my brothers' wedding cakes. After one arduous experience making the nuptial cake for a family friend, he vowed that my third brother and I — his remaining single children — will be the only future beneficiaries. Still, our frequent family gatherings are always teeming with his confections.

Over the years, other hobbies have come and gone: photography, wine, Proust (no joke). But he hasn't stopped baking. I don't suppose we'd let him if he tried.

He came upon a recipe for chocolate madeleines in an airline magazine more than 30 years ago. He began making them for my birthdays and occasions at school, he says, because they "seemed like finger food, but elegant." It is typical of my father to seriously consider the elegance of dessert meant for children younger than 10.

It was at the publishing parties that Dad's madeleines became legend.

On the day of each party, we'd drive in to Greenwich Village from Brooklyn. I'd sit fiercely upright in the back seat, carefully packaged metal trays of fresh chocolate madeleines poised precariously beside me: perfectly plumped and scalloped, cookie-sized miracles of moist chocolate cake. It took all the willpower my nine years could summon not to rip off the tin foil and devour them in the car.

Consistently, they were the highlight of the event. (Probably even the time I read my fiction opus: a story called "Alice and Me" in which a wanderlusting golden retriever runs away and winds up in a trash can with a local yellow Lab, only for nine pale puppies to emerge 20 minutes later.)

My involvement in Dad's madeleine preparation was generally confined to enthusiastic licking of the metallic bowl and white plastic spatula used for baking.

For while I did acquire several traits from my father — a long nose, impatience, an irrational fondness for Jackie Mason — the baking temperament is not one. Baking requires focus, precision, an attention span. I didn't get those genes.

But after graduating from college, I had forgotten what to do with spare time. So I started baking. Dad was thrilled and bought me a madeleine pan. It never occurred to me to make the chocolate kind.

In part, that's because I prefer lemon to chocolate. But it's also because they seemed too much his signature, too wrapped up in childhood memory.

So I made the lemon-almond version, which I later learned was the traditional sort. Eventually I added rosemary, mainly because I had some. And I learned that successful madeleine making is not so much miraculous as precise. They cook quickly and, like the rest of us, are no fun when dry and overbaked. I found, too, that if anything can salvage a dry lemon madeleine, it is a bowl of lemon curd for dipping.

Whether they're chocolate or lemon, it is difficult to present a plate of madeleines without someone signaling their cultural literacy by referencing a certain French writer and his madeleine-induced childhood memories.

I try not to pay these comments much mind.

I don't need Marcel Proust's nostalgia when it comes to madeleines. I have my own.

Lemon Rosemary Madeleines

Lemon Rosemary Madeleines with Lemon Curd i i
Elizabeth Tannen/NPR
Lemon Rosemary Madeleines with Lemon Curd
Elizabeth Tannen/NPR

The almonds make this recipe. You can substitute almond flour or blanch the almonds, but I like the texture that the skins provide. The rosemary is optional; it just adds some character. You could also try thyme or lavender. Lemon Curd (recipe below) is an option for dipping.

Makes 24

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup almonds

1 cup all-purpose flour

2/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons chopped rosemary

3 tablespoons lemon zest, minced

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 and butter two madeleine pans.

Melt butter and let cool.

Grind almonds and mix with flour, sugar and rosemary.

Combine zest with vanilla and add to the cooled butter.

Beat eggs and salt together. Add flour mixture to egg mixture and blend. Add butter and zest, cover with plastic and chill for 2 hours.

Place teaspoonfuls of batter into the buttered pans.

Bake in preheated oven for 12 minutes, until they give just slightly when touched.

Remove pans from oven. Let cool slightly, then transfer madeleines from pan to cooling rack within 5 minutes, or they'll stick to pan. Hold the pan on its edge and tap the underside with a spoon to release them onto rack.

Lemon Curd

This recipe is adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! (Random House 2001). It's a great complement to the lemon madeleines but goes well with a lot of other things: strawberries, breakfast cakes or, frankly, a metal spoon.

Makes about 3 cups

4 tablespoons lemon zest (about 4 lemons)

1 1/2 cups sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

4 extra-large eggs

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Pinch of salt

Zest the lemons with a vegetable peeler, careful to avoid the white pith, and pulse in a food processor. Add the sugar and continue to pulse until finely minced.

Cream the butter and, by hand or with an electric mixer, beat in the sugar-zest mixture. Add eggs one by one, then the lemon juice and pinch of salt.

Pour into a saucepan, bring to a simmer and lower heat, stirring constantly until it thickens, about 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool and then refrigerate. It will keep for two to three weeks in the refrigerator.

Chocolate Madeleines

Chocolate Madeleines i i
Elizabeth Tannen/NPR
Chocolate Madeleines
Elizabeth Tannen/NPR

This is Dad's recipe. He uses Hershey's cocoa unless he has "some of the good stuff (Scharffen Berger or Ghirardelli) laying around." I find the best method for dusting the confectioner's sugar is to place it in a metal strainer and tap the strainer with a spoon.

Makes 24

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder (unsweetened)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup sugar

2 extra-large eggs

4 egg yolks

Confectioner's sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and butter two madeleine pans.

Mix together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.

In electric mixer, cream butter. Add vanilla and sugar; beat well. Add eggs and egg yolks and blend. On low speed, add dry ingredients and mix only until combined. Do not overmix.

Place teaspoonfuls of batter into the buttered pans.

Place into preheated oven for 8 to 9 minutes. Check after 6 minutes. They should give just slightly when touched.

Remove pans from oven. Let cool slightly, then transfer madeleines from pan to cooling rack within 5 minutes, or they'll stick to pan. Hold the pan on its edge and tap the underside with a spoon to release them onto rack.

When completely cooled, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar.

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