According to Larousse Gastronomique, it is believed that the tea cake originated in the French town of Commercy, which was then a duchy under the rule of Stanishlaw Leszcynski. It is said that during a visit to the castle in 1775, the duke was very taken with a cake made by a peasant girl named Madeleine. They were launched into fashion once presented to the court at Versailles by the Duke’s daughter Marie.
With its delicate color, shape, and smell, the cakelike cookies exude a sweet presence that arouses all of the senses. Their distinctive scallop shape sets them apart from other pastries, along with their spongy texture and buttery taste. Their flavor pairs well with fruit, ice cream, and tea or coffee.
Madeleines, regarded as a classic French delight, now make a common appearance on many bakery and restaurant dessert menus worldwide. In the United States, their presence has gained momentum in recent years, especially with the rise of coffee house culture. Pastry chef Leah Stewart, owner/innkeeper of the Gallery House, a bread and breakfast in Louisville, Kentucky, adheres to the traditional form and recipe. Other pastry chefs, such as Phyllis Grech, pastry chef at Rabbit Hill Inn in Lower Waterford, Vermont, on the other hand, loves to experiment. Grech makes a variety of flavors, which include lavender, rosemary, lemon, basil, thyme, orange and lime zest, and peppercorn—and some are cocoa dusted or drizzled with chocolate. Megan Saynisch, the chef behind BrooklynFarmhouse.com based in NYC, prefers to use a classic French recipe to make her madeleines, but with the addition of lemon or orange zest. She has also been known to stuff her chocolate madeleines with a vanilla cream filling. But her most unusual madeleines are scented with jasmine extract, inspired by her wanderings inside a New York City Thai market.
In California, Don and Susie Morris, founders of Donsuemor, specialize in making madeleines for wholesale distribution. Starting out of their home in Berkley in 1976, they are now a recognized distributor through their parent website SavorCalifornia.com. The couple realized that the weren’t the only ones who had a high regard for the refined flavors of French cuisine and that a tea cake, such as the madeleine, would be a welcome treat as many of their customers had visited France or were simply familiarized to the treat through the wordy meanderings of Marcel Proust. Donsuemor have increased in popularity over the years and have come a long way from the time when sales were made from the back of a Volkswagen bus more than 30 years ago. Now their madeleines can be found at major retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Albertsons, and Starbucks.
The tea cake that was once described originally as petite madeleine to honor Madeleine Paulmier is now a classic dessert that every pastry chef has in their repertoire. Made right and eaten fresh, it is not difficult to wax poetic over these delicate cakes. So although they can be tricky to master, they are truly worth the effort.