Bonjour, mes petits lecteurs! Let's make a pact up front: If I resist the urge to make a preening bon mot about Proust over the course of this prologue, you have to promise not to gripe about how this recipe absolutely, positively, without exception requires the purchase of a special pan. (A mini-muffin tin might produce something, but they will not be madeleines.) Deal? Magnifique!
With that out of the way, we can move on to just why the delicate, fragrant, consummately charming madeleine should immediately become part of your baking repertoire. To begin, they are delicious, obviously — affectionate little sponge-cake kisses on their own, irresistible French seductions when slipped into a warm cup of tea. In terms of form, their refined-yet-playful seashell bellies and gently humped backs are one of the most elegant things you can produce in your oven, and they require almost embarrassingly little skill or effort. Seriously, people will straight-up coo over these cookies. What you do with your knowledge of their actual humble provenance is up to you.
Assuming you make sweet treats with mouths besides your own in mind, you should also feel welcome to regard madeleines as a go-to gift for casual occasions. I often use them as a hostess present; they make brunch that much easier when you're visiting family or friends over a summer weekend. With minimal planning — basically enough time to rest the batter — you may bless some lucky person with a lovely tin of exquisite confections that will simultaneously endear you to them with your thoughtfulness and intimidate them with your presumed baking prowess. Not bad for a cookie.
Speaking of resting batter, the only trick to this recipe is a modicum of patience. Doing the steps completely and in order is crucial if you hope for the best result. To start, make sure your eggs are at room temperature. (The easiest way is to submerge them in a small bowl of warm water for a few minutes while you gather the other ingredients.) When you're ready to start mixing, resist the call of the Kitchenaid and opt instead for a wooden spoon and your own surprisingly strong forearms: Your efforts will result in a batter of superior consistency and authenticity. The rest is all about flavor: Be careful not to overbrown the butter, and don't skimp on the vanilla bean - the flecks are gorgeous here. The rose water is optional, but it does add a subtle floral note that should please the kind of person who appreciates the subtle nuances of a fine tea cake.
Now, about that pan. If you're an insufferable food tourist like me, you will read Julia Child's memoir and then insist on visiting her favorite kitchen supply store in Paris to obtain your madeleine mold. Or you can just order one online. I suspect, though, that my madeleines - the recipe for which is based on Julia Child's trustworthy "de Commercy" version — come out as well as they do because they can sense my commitment. But that is an ingredient whose worth you must judge for yourself.
Yield: 24 cookies; Time: About 3 hours, mostly unattended
2/3 cup superfine or caster sugar
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature and lightly beaten
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) high-fat butter (such as Plugra´)
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons rose water (optional)
Powdered sugar for garnish (optional)
Put the sugar in a large bowl and sift in 1 cup of the flour and the salt; whisk briefly to combine. Slowly add the beaten eggs while stirring with a wooden spoon, then continue to stir forcefully until the mixture becomes a thick, creamy paste, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Fill another large bowl with cold water. Melt 1/2 cup (1 stick) of the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until it just begins to turn brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and submerge the bottom of the pan in the cold water, stirring the butter constantly until it reaches room temperature, about 5-6 minutes. Add the butter to the flour mixture, and stir with the wooden spoon until the mixture is glossy and has the consistency of pulled taffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the vanilla bean seeds, vanilla extract, lemon zest and juice, and rose water, if using, and stir to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Heat the oven to 375 F. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) of the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Combine the brown butter with the remaining 1 tablespoon flour in a small bowl.
Using a pastry brush, coat the cups of a 12-madeleine pan with a thin film of the butter-flour mixture; don't let it pool in the bottom of each cup. Spoon a ping-pong-ball-sized scoop of dough into the center of each cup. Use your fingers to gently press each ball of dough into a rough oval. Bake until the centers of the madeleines are puffed and the edges just browned, 13 to 15 minutes - watch carefully toward the end as they can burn quickly. Let the madeleines cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then transfer them to wire racks to finish cooling.
Repeat Step 4 with the remaining butter-flour mixture (you may need to stir in a few drops of hot water if it has congealed) and the remaining dough. Serve plain or dusted with powdered sugar. (Store madeleines in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a few days.)