When I was ten, my family chose Paris as our big summer vacation destination. After flying to Hong Kong every summer, you think we’d be used to grueling flights and jet lag, but we suffered terribly that first afternoon in Paris.
After arriving, we found ourselves at a small cafe overlooking a river, facing a menu written entirely in French. My dad recognized select words, but not enough to really understand what the dishes were. The waitstaff could not, or would not, speak English. So we just ordered blindly, and of course, some of the dishes were total misses.
I had never really been in a situation where nobody in my family could speak the language of the native population – though my sister and I understood zero words in Hong Kong, my parents had grown up there and navigated the streets and language flawlessly. In Paris, my mom and I tried to find a chocolate shop and even with a map, we soon lost ourselves in the labyrinth of cobblestoned streets. We gesticulated wildly at strangers and they gesticulated back, every person we asked pointing in a different direction. Three hours later, we finally stumbled into the shop.
Our half day of wandering and questionable food left us all crabby and drained. In our cramped, dark hotel room, we quickly fell asleep (then woke up at 4am, and spent the rest of the night fruitlessly tossing and turning).
The next morning, we came down to an airy lobby filled with light. Outside, the bustling sounds of chatter, cars, and mopeds could be heard, and in the center of the lobby was a large, circular table with a platter of madeleines. Our first half day in Paris faded like a nightmare as we sampled our first madeleines, then quickly reached for seconds.
Each morning started with that first madeleine, its light sweetness holding promises of the adventures to come. We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower like good tourists, and wandered the halls of Musée d’Orsay for an entire day, not realizing how sore our feet were until after we had left. We came across a fair in a park close to our hotel, and rode what felt like the biggest Ferris wheel ever. We ate seafood and duck and pigeon, all cooked impeccably, and delicious French pastries that have since haunted my memory.
Since that trip to France over a decade ago, I’ve eaten copious quantities of croissants, brioche, and macarons, and yet, I never returned to the madeleine, perhaps because I had built it up to such an unattainable symbol of unbridled wonder that I had experienced as a child in Paris.
However, I recently flipped through a cookbook that nobody in my family remembers buying, and came across a madeleine recipe. I felt like fate must have intervened just a little, so I ran out and bought a madeleine pan that night. And these little cakes were sweet morsels of sunshine, a perfect start to our mornings in Paris and at home.
Madeleines au Miel (adapted from Simply French by Patricia Wells) – makes ~24 madeleines
13 tbsp unsalted butter
1 2/3 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely ground unblanched almonds (I used almond flour)
6 large egg whites
1 tbsp strong-flavored honey
Grease madeleine molds, then dust lightly with flour. Shake out excess flour. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, heat the butter over moderately high heat. The butter will turn foamy and white, then clear and golden with large bubbles. When the butter begins to brown and gives off a nutty aroma (~5 min), transfer to a medium-sized metal or ceramic bowl to stop the cooking. Set aside to cool.
Sift the sugar and flour into a medium-size bowl. Stir in the ground almonds, and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until frothy. Add almond-flour mixture and whisk until thoroughly combined. Whisk in brown butter and honey.
Ladle batter into prepared molds, filling them almost to the top. Refrigerate for 1 hour to firm up the batter. (Longer refrigeration time creates higher domes on the madeleines.)
Preheat oven to 350F.
Place tins in oven and bake until madeleines are light golden and springy to touch, 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and sharply rap the tins against a flat surface to loosen madeleines. Unmold immediately, using the tip of a sharp knife if necessary, and transfer to a rack to cool.
For madeleines au citron, add grated zest of 2 lemons and 1/4 cup lemon juice when you whisk in the brown butter and honey. Make sure to refrigerate for at least 1 hour, as the batter will be much more liquid and needs more time to firm up.