Editor’s note: Due to the production schedule for Pacific NW magazine, this story was written before the state’s “shelter in place” orders, intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, were enacted.
FROM NOW ON, my Proustian madeleine scene will be Laurie Pfalzer’s kitchen, watching the baking instructor expertly knock 12 scalloped cookies from a pan and say invitingly, “I think they really should be eaten when they’re warm.”
Madeleines, those elegant little French sweets that Pfalzer calls “a cross between a cookie and a cake,” won literary fame in the first volume of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” where a madeleine dipped into hot tea ignites a cascade of memories from the main character’s childhood home.
In my own life, madeleine memories have been less charmed, chiefly involving plastic-wrapped packages at chain coffee shops. They didn’t look like a great candidate for home baking.
I’ve valued Pfalzer’s cooking advice for years, though, and taken her Pastry Craft baking classes. So when she published a madeleine recipe in her first book, “Simple Fruit” (Sasquatch Books, $19.95), and said they were one of the simplest pastries around, it was time to reassess.
Madeleines weren’t a regular part of Pfalzer’s repertoire, either, she says, until she was pastry chef at the Salish Lodge and Spa and dreamed up a chocolate pot du crème dessert accompanied by candied mint and mini-chocolate madeleines.
From there, they became a favorite, and one that was surprisingly amenable to creative variations. “I just like to play with recipes,” she says, adding flavors and substituting flours. The book’s version includes orange zest and a measure of low-gluten rye flour. For those who don’t have a scalloped madeleine pan, she says, the batter even works fine in a muffin tin, though they won’t form that lovely seashell shape.
Mixing a batch in Pfalzer’s welcoming Mountlake Terrace kitchen, I found the madeleines were indeed uncomplicated — though they have specific guidelines, as many baked goods do.
When it comes to modern cooking, “I think we talk too much about hacks,” she says.
For starters, Pfalzer suggests making madeleine batter a day ahead and refrigerating it before baking so the cookies develop their best rounded “hump” in the oven. Rather than melting butter, as many recipes suggest, Pfalzer squeezes it through her fingers into a bowl (a technique more commonly used for other French pastries). She spoons batter conservatively into the metal pans: “You don’t want to overfill these,” she says, lest they spill out unattractively over the sides.
As the baking time neared its end, she looked to make sure the madeleine edges were properly golden-brown, and pressed a cookie’s center to see it pop right back, “like a cake would.” She rapped the pan after taking it from the oven, and the madeleines spilled out as if on command.
Pfalzer grew up in Bothell, with a mother who baked all the time and made it look so simple that Pfalzer didn’t even realize how much people could be intimidated by making a cookie or cake. As a teacher, she focuses on making home cooks feel at ease in that same way she felt as a child.
Working on “Simple Fruit,” she said, made her realize how tied her youth also was to seasonal cooking with her mother.
After 50 years, her parents moved out of that family home the summer she wrote the book, she said in the preface, and memories washed over her as she walked through each room on her final visit.
In the kitchen, she wrote, “I saw my mom at the stove dropping canning jars of peaches into the steaming water. My sister was next to me, hulling strawberries for jam and freezing. Looking out the window, my dad stood on the ladder at the Concord grape arbor over the swing, picking the grapes …
“Everything had changed that summer, and yet nothing had changed. I stood in the kitchen and sobbed, and then I left the house for the last time.”
It sounds like a completely Proustian moment, even without the pastry.
Orange and Rye Madeleines
Makes about 12 madeleines
½ cup (65 g) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons (50 g) light rye flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup (100 g) sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
Pinch kosher salt
½ cup (1 stick, 113 g) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or the pulp of ½ vanilla bean
1. Sift the flours and baking powder in a small bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs and salt until frothy. Create a pomade with the butter by squeezing it through your fingers and into the bowl with the egg mixture, thus making the butter more pliable. Whisk the egg mixture until the butter pieces are small and evenly distributed. Stir in the orange zest and vanilla. Add the flour mixture, and fold gently with a rubber spatula until just combined. (The batter will look a little lumpy because there will be small pieces of butter visible in the mixture.)
2. For best results, cover the mixture with plastic wrap directly on the surface, and chill overnight, or for at least 4 hours. The madeleines can be baked right away, but their trademark hump will be smaller.
3. When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease the madeleine molds. Spoon small amounts of batter into the molds (1 tablespoon for standard madeleines). Bake the madeleines for 9 to 11 minutes, or until the edges are dark golden and the centers spring back when touched. Immediately tap out the madeleines onto a rack (they should release easily from the pan). Serve them warm or at room temperature. (If you don’t have a madeleine pan, you could bake these in the bottoms of standard muffin tins. The look will be different, but the texture will be identical.)
Madeleines are best served warm the same day they are made. If you plan to hold them, as soon as they are cool, store them at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 2 days.