I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If there’s one rule of home cooking I believe in, it is this: screw the fancy stuff. Shred your Thomas Keller & Heston Blumenthal books. Focus instead on a mastering handful of unfussy dishes which you practice again and again and again until you are very good at them. I promise this approach will serve you well. Attempting to replicate the acrobatics of Michelin starred restaurants won’t.
In my own case, I sleep calmly at night knowing that with minimum stress I am able to roast a chicken, poach some fish, sear a steak, braise some short-ribs, whip up an omelet, steam some rice, grill a lamb chop, sautée asparagus, simmer a curry, make a risotto.
Nothing fancy, but I’ve made these things a lot, which means that as the omelet coagulates in the pan or the curry burbles happily in its pot, everything is under control. I feel confident, efficient, even suave. Heck, the are some moments when in my mind’s eye I become Pierce Brosnan in my own home kitchen. (Yes, this is preposterous.)
Until you ask me to bake something. Then it all changes.
Faced with creating the simplest of cakes, out goes the self-confidence, and in comes Woody Allen. If you ever catch me baking, chances are I’ll be nervously pacing the length of my tiny kitchen, or peering frantically through the oven door, a stricken look on my face as I try to divine what tragedy unfolds within.
So what is it about baking that turns me into a neurotic, awkward, clarinet-playing Jew?
Here’s the thing. When you roast a leg of lamb or make a bolognese sauce, there is margin for error. You can wing it a little, make substitutions, roll with the punches.
But baking is different. The science of baking is tyrannical and unflinching. Making a cake is effectively a minefield of mistakes waiting to be made, a series of acts designed to make you fail. I know first hand how cruel and mean-spririted the baking gods can be.
Oops, the eggs weren’t at room temperature.
Sorry, the cake was in the wrong part of the oven.
The butter was too warm.
The butter was too cold.
Don’t stir the batter to much.
It’s particularly humid today? Yeeerrrssss, that will throw everything off.
What, there was a tiny particle of yolk in the egg whites you attempted to whip? Oh. Oh, I see. Well I’m afraid you’ll have to start all over again, you miserable fool.
One final example which scuppered me only the other day. Let’s say the cake recipe calls for a nine inch circular tin, but yours is ten inches in diameter. Hey, it’s only an inch, so no biggie, right? Wrong. Using about the only equation I remember from my schoolboy mathematics, it turns out that the increase in volume between a 9 inch tin and a 10 inch tin is 23.5%. This changes the cooking time entirely, and you are doomed. All for one miserable inch.
But going back to my original theme (“keep a limited repertoire and practice”), I have found one type of baked treat which after a great deal of repetition no longer intimidates me: madeleines. These are the shell-shaped little sponge cakes from France. They look sophisticated, and are relatively easy to make.
There is a particular scene in Proust’s sprawling masterpiece Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu (begun in 1909 and finished in 1922) which – for reasons I do not entirely understand – has become famous. The narrator eats a madeleine, the taste of which dreamily (or should that be drearily?) conjures up remembered scenes from his childhood and prompts various musings upon the nature of memory.
Cookbook writers have fallen upon this passage, and these days an allusion to Proust has become the sine qua non of any madeleine recipe you care to read. I’ve seen it over and over. I suppose cookbook writers do this to infuse a waft of erudition into what’s basically instructions pertaining to flour, eggs and sugar. It is meant to make the writer seem more clever (just as I shamelessly used the off-the-shelf Latin phrase “sine qua non” a couple of sentences ago.)
But I shall not be directly quoting the famous Proust / Madeleine passage. To do so would be disingenuous because I’ve never read Á La Recherche. Actually pretty much no one has, especially people who are busy writing recipe books. It’s seven bloody volumes long. Everything I know about Proust comes from the tremendously useful and entertaining “How To Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” by the scholar (and my friend) Henry Hitchings. He describes Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which means “In Search of Lost Times”) along with the Qur’an as probably “the [two] books most alluded to by people who have never read a single page of them.” So to anyone reading this who is about to publish a madeleine recipe involving a pretentious Proust reference, please don’t. Unless you have read the seven volumes. Which you haven’t.
With that out the way, here is my preferred Madeleine recipe, tweaked slightly from Justin Piers Gellatly’s version in the wonderful Beyond Nose to Tail. I make madeleines both in their usual size (as served in the french fry cone above), or in the mini, bite-sized version (pictured at the top of this page.) My toddler son Jacob gobbles up the mini ones as if his life depended upon it.
- 1/2 cup (115 g) unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp honey
- 3 large eggs
- 2/3 cup (133 grams) granulated white sugar
- 1 tbsp soft brown sugar
- 1 cup (130 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- the zest of 1/2 lemon
You will need a madeleine tray, widely available at cookery stores.
Melt the butter and honey in a saucepan and simmer until golden brown. Leave to cool. Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, whisk the eggs, white sugar and brown sugar together for 8-10 minutes, until the mixture has tripled in volume and leaves a trail on the surface for a few seconds. Add the vanilla extract and whisk in.
Mix the flour, salt and baking powder together. Sift half of this mixture into the egg mixture and fold in; gently then add the second half and and fold. Add the melted butter and lemon zest; fold it in until it is all incorporated. Do not overmix. Pour into a plastic container, and leave to rest in the fridge for 2 hours or more.
Either i) spray the madeleine molds with Baker’s Joy, or ii) grease with butter and dust well with flour, tapping out the excess. Place a dessert spoon of the mixture in each mold and bake in an oven preheated to 375º F (190° C) for 11 -13 minutes until firm to the touch and lightly browned. If you are using a mini-madeleine tray, reduce the cooking time to 6 – 8 minutes.
Remove the pans from the oven and rap each pan sharply against a counter top to release the madeleines. Transfer the madeleines, smooth sides down, to wire racks to cool. The madeleines are best served the same day but can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 to 3 days or frozen, well wrapped, for up to 1 month.
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