Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a fan of ostentatious, OTT desserts. I love a layer cake with several different types and flavours of icing; I think edible glitter is possibly the greatest invention to ever grace the baking world; I consider that it is never a waste of time to spend hours making sugar flowers or waiting for your Pavlova meringue to dry out if it means you get an amazing pudding at the end.
But as much as I love these treats, there is a large space reserved in my heart for the simple, pared-down, yet perfect cake; and in my mind, this is epitomised by the adorable, quintessentially French, petite Madeleine.
So small, soft and delicate. Like a shell-shaped ‘fairy-cake’. (Remember fairy-cakes? Not cupcakes, which tends to be larger, and covered in a rich icing – I’m talking about the fairy-cakes of childhood, really quite tiny compared to cupcakes. Light and fluffy, vanilla or lemon-flavoured, and probably only covered with a simple glacé icing (made from just water and icing sugar), if anything. They were something to whip up with mum or grandma on a Saturday afternoon; they graced every childhood birthday party I ever went to. Eating madeleines sort of evoke that fairy-cake nostalgia for me… even though madeleines are far more sophisticated a cake, bien sûr.)
My mum bought me a madeleine mould for Christmas, and this is the first time I’ve used it. It’s a silicone mould, rather than a metal one, and I must say it worked superbly! (In the past, I’ve had both good and bad experiences with silicone bakeware… I’d say, if you’re thinking of buying any, to do your research carefully. My experience tells me that for small bakes – like cupcakes, madeleines or mini loaves – a sturdy silicone mould can work well (I’ve had good ones from Ikea). But for larger things like cake pans, I’d always recommend metal.)
Madeleines are traditionally flavoured with vanilla or lemon, or sometimes almonds, and are eaten warm out of the oven (suits me!). A delicate, sweet treat with afternoon tea. I couldn’t decide how to flavour mine…and then inspiration struck. A while ago, I bought some ‘Fiori di Sicilia’ (which gorgeously enough, means ‘flowers of Sicily’), an oil-based flavouring traditionally used in Italian panettone. The aroma of Fiori di Sicilia is hard to describe, but it’s a dreamy blend of vanilla, oranges and lemons, plus a number of other floral extracts you can’t quite put your finger on… it’s fragrant and unique and it just smells wonderful. I think Ambrosia, the food of the gods, must taste like Fiori di Sicilia.
A few drops are all that’s needed- less is more when it comes to this flavouring. And indeed, my most trusted taste-tester (who luckily is also my husband) pronounced the flavour ‘perfect – subtle but just enough.’ And I hadn’t tipped him off on what to say, or anything.
In fact, he thought the whole little cake was ‘perfect’, and I have to say I agree. Simple things, made with lovely ingredients, are so often the best. (Note to self.) So try to use the best unsalted butter and the best quality vanilla (if you’re using it rather than Fiori di Sicilia) that you can in these madeleines, to really let the flavours shine through.
Enjoy them with anyone old enough to eat a cake. My one-year-old niece Gracie can vouch for the fact that toddlers love madeleines as much as anyone, and can put a fair few away!
– If you can’t get hold of Fiori di Sicilia (or you don’t want to use it), use 1 teaspoon vanilla extract instead.
– My Madeleine mould has 9 impressions, but this mixture makes about 20 Madeleines (depending on how big the impressions are). I just did batches back-to-back: after removing the baked Madeleines from the oven, wait a few minutes and then gently pop the cakes from the mould/tin and put on a baking rack to cool. Re-grease the mould/tin if necessary and refill with more Madeleine mixture, and put the mould/tin back in the oven to bake the second round.
Recipe: Madeleines with Fiori di Sicilia
2 large eggs
100g caster sugar
100g plain flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, if you prefer)
100g butter, melted
3 tablespoons of milk
How to make them
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over a low heat. Once melted, remove from heat while you get on with the other steps.
3. Grease a Madeleine tin with baking spray (my method of choice) or with a little of the melted butter.
4. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is thick, pale and frothy (a few minutes). I used my KitchenAid for this step but you can certainly do it by hand.
5. Add the flour and baking powder, and whisk for a minute to combine.
6. One at a time, add the Fiori di Sicilia, melted butter and milk, whisking all the time to combine.
7. Using a spoon, divide the mixture between the impressions in the Madeleine mould/tin, allowing the mixture to come very near to the top of the impression. (If you have mixture left over, pop it in the fridge while the first round of Madeleines bake – you can do the rest afterwards (see Notes above).)
8. Put the filled mould/tin in the oven and make for 8-10 minutes until the Madeleines are risen and golden brown. (I found that mine needed the full 10 minutes.)
9. Remove the Madeleines from the oven and after a minute or so, gently prize the little cakes out of the mould with a small palette knife or rounded table knife. Leave on a cooling rack to cool, but eat while still warm.