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.

Before the recipe, a side note. Somewhat annoyingly, perhaps the most famous thing about madeleines is their association with the early 20th century French novelist, Marcel Proust.

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.

 

24 Responses to Baking turns me into Woody Allen.

  1. Anne-Christine Gasc says:

    Baking brings chemistry in the kitchen – I love it! The precision required makes things more difficult, but it’s beautiful.

    It’s may be the reason that cultures using volumetric measures (e.g. cups) don’t have a lot of baking in their cuisine … Volumetric measures aren’t precise enough for fiddly chemical reactions.

    • Will says:

      There’s definitely truth in that, A-CG. Using cups (as opposed to grams) is notoriously imprecise, when baking calls from total accuracy. The French – the world’s best bakers – make wonderfully elegant pastries and cakes. American baking tends to be a bit less refined (though still delicious.) Think of classic American apple pie etc.

      I think ease with baking is something that’s either in your DNA or it isn’t. I’m not a particularly precise, mathematical person. I tend more towards intuition. Hence baking scares me!

      Anyway, thanks for reading! May I add you to my email update list so you know when I publish further posts? Merci!

  2. ashley brokaw-shapiro says:

    ah, yes, the science of baking!! i’d given up on making meringues long ago because of this — humidity make it very difficult to whip them up! a few bad summer episodes and i’ve never tried again. i usually stick to my well practiced stand by – biscotti. alice waters has a great recipe!

    • Will says:

      Alice Waters’ recipes are the bomb. Never let you down. (She’s a bit of a mad old hippy, but whatever.) Yes, isn’t it ridiculous that the weather can ruin your meringues! Seems so unfair!

      Hey, thanks for reading and leaving a comment! I appreciate it.

      Will

  3. Paulina says:

    “You will need a madeleine tray, widely available at cookery stores.”
    Actually…. we went to the famous Parisian kitchenware store in PLACE DE LA MADELEINE (probably nothing to do with this recipe but still funny) and they were totally out of Madeleine trays, (not because tourists bought them either) – we went to numerous stores in Paris (this was going to be a gift for Richard’s sister, who is a great baker and cook.) We could not find Madeleine trays anywhere in Paris that day… You should consider an affiliate link!

  4. Jane says:

    I love your cooking philosophy and couldn’t agree more. And, your madeleines are so beautifully presented here, with such simplicity. I imagine the “club” of living people who have actually read all of Proust’s multi-volume work is a very small one indeed. In any case, I’m thankful there’s no such reading requirement in order to bake or enjoy madeleines. I also agree with you that they are easy to make. No baker need be intimidated by them!

    • Will says:

      Jane, thank you very much indeed for the kind response. I have been looking at your site which is full of baking gorgeousness to which I could never aspire! I see you allude to Sarabeth’s book… funnily enough I met her quite by accident the other day when I was grabbing a coffee and a brioche in one of her bakeries here in Manhattan. I didn’t really know who she was or quite what a success she has been until I saw the book. In any case, I shall be following your blog with much enjoyment, and again I am grateful to you for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Will

  5. ddsquared says:

    Your madeleines are gorgeous! The comment about Volume v. Weight is correct for most delicate items. Errors are then compounded by incorrect pan size andinaccurate oven temps.

    Think about making those American treats where you can adjust for finished product size by adding more filling: fruit cobblers and pies, or that are baked on flat sheet pans: strudels, mandelbrots,rugelach and cookies.

    One of the cookies I make is a pinwheel. Very basic butter cookie dough, divided in half w/chocolate added to one half. Chill doughs, roll out each half flat. Ewchill, then cut into sslices and bake. People are always astounded that such a cookie can be made at home. Why? I don’t know, seems pretty basic.

    • Will says:

      Greetings ddsquared (apols I do not know your real name.) Your observation about the volume vs weight issue is well taken. I live in a rental apartment with a prehistoric oven, and I do suspect it is poorly calibrated which leads to all kind of torments. I really should have bought a $5 oven thermometer long ago to get to the bottom of this, but somehow never did. The suggestion of doing slightly more ‘robust’ American baked treats is excellent, and with Fall in full swing, now is the time for pies etc. I shall also try my hand at the pinwheel cookies and report back.

      I am terrifically grateful to you for taking the time to both read and respond to my blog, so thank you. I can add you to my mailing list if you like to be informed of further posts.

      Best wishes,

      Will

  6. Diablo 3 says:

    I really like your website.. extremely good hues & theme. Did you create this web site yourself? Plz reply again as I’m looking to create my own web site and would like to know wheere u received this from. many thanks

    • Will says:

      Hi Diablo 3. Thanks for the compliment. This was something of a custom build… I found a good web guy and sent a few hundred dollars on it. But if you are more web literate than I am, you could probably get far with the right theme. My advice? Keep it simple! Best,

      Will

  7. I love this post. You seem to sum up baking – and oddly the idiosyncrasies of it which I love – perfectly. These madelines look delicious. Gorgeous presentation and shots too.

    • Will says:

      Russell, thank you for the generous words which are made all the more kind by coming from someone who – by the looks of your blog – definitely knows a thing or two about baking. I am most impressed by your creations. I never knew Texans had such refinement… haha, just kidding. I can add you to my email list if you like… I just joined yours. Best wishes,

      Will

  8. alexander says:

    great photos – Zeiss lens?

  9. Heike says:

    Just where is the facebook like button ?

  10. Barbara says:

    I’m pleased to have discovered your blog. Great photos and writing. I have subscribed.

    I have read Proust – well almost, I have about 100 pages of the last volume to go, and I last picked up the book a couple of years ago. I may or may not finish it.

    There is some beautiful writing within the book. It is a shame he is known for the madelaine piece when there is so many better pieces.

    • Will says:

      Hi Barbara,

      Only 100 pages of Proust to go? Surely that puts you in the 1% of people who ever picked up a copy of his work. I’m sending you many good vibes to make it past the finish line!

      Meantime, thanks for reading my blog and bothering to leave a comment. Much appreciated. By the way, I have been told that “How Proust can change your Life” by Alain de Botton is worth a read, and looks past the madeleneines.

      Best,

      Will

  11. Allie says:

    Just found your blog through Foodgawker and I love it!

    It’s funny that you say this about baking. I feel completely opposite! When I roast meat, I constantly worry, “will it be cooked through/be too dry?” or “will it even taste good?” Cooking seems like a world of magic and so many possibilities that I get overwhelmed and don’t know how to relax. I would love to learn this art! It seems mystical to me.

    With baking, I feel comfortable and actually like I *can* have room for error. It’s flour, butter, sugar, & eggs – in different combinations with different additions. You learn how the different ingredients like to behave, what they do at different temperatures, and you can then learn how to finesse them into doing what you want.

    That said, I am a huge fan of chemistry, have taken many chemistry labs, and work in a research lab – maybe this explains it! Haha.

    Thanks for the wonderful post, and the Woody Allen analogy is just too good.

    • Will says:

      Dear Allie,

      First and foremost, I could not be more grateful to you for reading my rants and bothering to comment. I take your point about baking versus, say, roasting meat. I think it comes down to a fundamental difference in how one thinks. If you have more of a scientific, logical intelligence (as it sounds like you do), then I can see that baking offers structure and chemical predictability which must be reassuring. For my own part, however, I lack that kind of mental wiring. I’m more intuitive, less quantitative (though I wish I were more so), and I was always useless at mathematics at school (again, if only I had been better.) So I take a rather more instinctive approach to cooking. Of course sometimes I get it wrong, but that’s the risk one takes.

      Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to read an comment. May I add you to my email list so you know when I post new work?

      Best,

      Will

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