July 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
The air outside is still fragrant with the scent of the blossom of the stately lime trees which line our pleasant suburban street. This is the year that I have finally harvested and dried some of these blossoms. They make the most delicately flavoured of tisanes to serve alongside a plateful of madeleines to recreate that oft-referenced literary reminiscence in Marcel Proust’s “Du Côté de Chez Swann”, the first instalment of the mighty novel cycle “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu”.
Towards the beginning of the novel, the narrator’s mother sends out for a small cake to serve with tea “un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques”.
Tasting the morsel of cake dipped in hot tea triggers in the narrator a childhood memory of eating madeleines dipped in his Aunt Léonie’s lime tea. The narrator is fascinated by the shape of the madeleine “the form, too of the little shell made of cake, so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating”.
The shape of the madeleine is undoubtedly part of its appeal. Its dainty size and unadorned simplicity make it the antithesis of an oversized, overfrosted, overdecorated cupcake.
The good news is that madeleines are very simple to make. The recipe I use comes from Frances Bissell’s book “Entertaining”. The key step before you start is getting hold of the essential madeleine moulds. Be sure to invest in at least two trays as it’s very frustrating being able to bake just 9 madeleines at a time. I picked up my pair of silicone moulds in a kitchen shop in France but there’s no need to travel – there’s a huge selection of similar moulds available on Amazon.
Some cooks insist that only metal moulds give good results but I’ve had excellent results with my silicone moulds which I grease lightly before use. I sit them on a baking tray to make the job of putting them in and taking them out of the oven risk-free.
I give the full madeleine recipe below, together with a slightly more complex recipe featured recently on BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” which I haven’t tried out yet. Why bother when the basic recipe works so well?
You can ring the changes a little by flavouring the madeleines classically with a little orange zest and a teaspoon of orange flower water, or a little lemon peel. In the last batch I made, I finally found the opportunity to use my latest food purchase – a precious little tin of must-have Tonka beans – and grated just a little into the batter to impart a subtle spicy richness.
Another trick to add depth of flavour to your madeleines is to take your melted butter to the beurre noisette stage before stirring it into the mix – this is something I learned to do from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Génoise Classique recipe from her aptly named “Cake Bible”. It’s also something that the second more complex madeleine recipe suggests.
Mixing the batter is very straightforward – no tricky creaming as the butter is melted and is incorporated very easily. It takes only a tablespoon of batter to fill each mould and the mixture really is quite runny – don’t be alarmed, this is how it should be.
OK, so that’s the madeleines taken care of. Now for the tea to dip them in.
The lime trees outside my front door may smell divine but are too close to the road to contemplate gathering the flowers to make a tisane. Lime trees are in flower for a very short time – just a week or so – so when a warm dry day arrives to gather the blossoms, you have to drop everything and seize the moment.
When the right day arrived, I headed off to nearby Dunham Park where lime trees grow in a perfect rolling parkland setting well away from roads:
I spread out the blossoms I’d collected on a wicker tray to dry gently in the dining room out of direct sunlight:
And a week later, I was ready to prepare my tisane and enjoy my Proustian moment.
So much more refined than dunking a jaffa cake into a mug of PG tips. Come to think of it, there’s a great literary pastiche to be written here…
Recipe for madeleines (1)
From Frances Bissell’s “Entertaining”
100g (4 oz) caster sugar
100g (4 oz) self raising flour
pinch of salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
130g (5 oz) unsalted butter, melted
Butter and flour madeleine moulds. Sift together the sugar, flour and salt. Beat in the eggs, and then mix in the melted butter. Pour the batter (which is quite liquid) into the prepared moulds, and bake in the top half of a preheated oven at 220 degrees C/450 degrees F/gas mark 8 for 5-7 minutes. Remove from the oven once the madeleines are golden, well risen and have the characteristic “bump” in the middle.
Recipe for madeleines (2)
Michael Vanheste of Betty’s cookery school’s recipe as featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour earlier this year.
60g (2 oz) lightly salted butter
1 medium egg
50 g (1.5 oz) caster sugar
30g (1 oz) plain flour
20g (1/2 oz) ground almonds
1 lemon, zested
1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees (fan assisted). Gas mark 5.
2. Warm a heavy-based pan over a moderate heat and add the butter. Cook the butter slowly until it has melted, turned a golden colour and gives off a nutty scent, hence the name “beurre noisette”. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
3. In a metal bowl, whisk the egg with the caster sugar until the mixture has become light and airy. You should be able to briefly leave a figure of eight with the balloon whisk on the surface of the mixture.
4. Sift the flour and ground almonds into the bowl and gently fold into the egg mixture together with the lemon zest. Finally, gently stir the beurre noisette through the mixture. Leave to rest for about an hour if you have the time, this will allow the gluten in the flour to relax, ensuring the cakes are light.
5. Spoon the batter into the madeleine moulds filling them 3/4 full. Bake in the preheated oven for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown and springy to the touch.
6. Leave to cool in the mould for a while until cool enough to handle and then turn out onto a wire rack.
7. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.
Instructions for preparing lime or linden tea
Choose a warm sunny day to gather lime blossoms. Pick your trees carefully, away from roadside dirt and pollution. Using a pair of scissors, snip off the blossoms including the leaflike bracts. Transport the blossoms home carefully ideally in a wicker basket. Lay them out to dry on trays and leave in a warm dry place out of direct sunlight for about a week. Store in an airtight container.
When ready to brew, place 2 tablespoons blossoms (7g) in a teapot, pour on boiling water (I used 835 ml) and leave to infuse for at least 5 minutes. Strain into your favourite china cup, and if liked, sweeten with a little runny honey – choose one which is light and floral in character to complement rather than overpower the flavour of the tisane.