What ever happened to dessert as spectacle? Too often, dessert is something that happens out of sight. It's made earlier in the day and tucked away; or it's bought from a bakery or dug out of the freezer, the frozen last resort of mango sorbet or some bite-sized thing from Trader Joe's. The flaming drama of crepes Suzette and bananas Foster, it seems, is long behind us.
But why not reclaim the last course's potential as a little bit of interactive performance? After all, your guests have already been fed. If you screw up, no one's going to have to call for pizza delivery on the way home, loudly bemoaning your hubris in the kitchen. No one thinks you can just make a cake, snap, like that, right under their noses while the dishes are being cleared and the coffee made. Thus, I've turned what is actually a fault--not getting it together on time to show up on the doorstep with a cake already baked--into a party trick, showing up with a bagful of ingredients secretly pre-measured and ready to mix and bake. Certain simple butter cakes, especially those topped with sliced fruit and an aromatic sprinkle of cinnamon sugar, like this ever-popular plum torte, are perfect for this, with the added benefit of making everyone's mouth water with their alluring scent of browning butter, sugar, spice, and fruit.
Madeleines, those dainty, shell-shaped little cakes, are even easier, and have the added benefit of being French and therefore, to American eyes, fancy. They also give those who have put their time in reading Proust a chance to show off, especially if they can quote the relevant passages in the original. You can please, or one-up, these people by serving a tisane de tilleul (linden-flower tea), since that is what Proust's narrator was drinking when his fragment of madeleine, soaked in the tea, brought forth its famously prolific gush of memory.)
Now, the thing about madeleines is, they're at their most delectable fresh out of the oven. Yes, the ones sold three at a time in little plastic bags at Starbucks or out of the vending machines in the Paris Metro are still pretty good; as spongy little cakes go, they're surprisingly resilient. But I still remember the grande geste of some very posh French restaurant in New York City where, post-dessert but pre-check, the waiter brought out a complementary bowl, swaddled in a huge napkin, that was unfolded to reveal freshly baked madeleines snuggled in the white linen like baby birds in a nest. Ooh la la, how I wanted to kiss that waiter and leave him a huge, huge tip!
So, to make this happen effortlessly after dinner, a few tricks. You can easily make the batter beforehand and stash it in the fridge. Because it depends on well-beaten eggs, not baking powder, for its puff, it won't lose any potency for being made ahead of time. The ingredients are pantry-simple--sugar, butter, flour, a little lemon or orange rind, a splash of vanilla and a pinch of salt--meaning no frantic last-minute trips will be needed to search out 85% chocolate or a bottle of Grand Marnier. The only thing you must have is a madeleine pan. Usually, I am all about the good-enough substitution; many are the pie crusts I've rolled out with a tequila bottle and the chickens baked in a cast-iron skillet rather than an All-Clad roasting pan. No matter what the nice lady at Crate & Barrel tells you, you do not need a plastic strawberry huller shaped like a strawberry. Nor do you need an egg slicer or a mango pitter.
But in this case, there is no way around it; you want to make a madeleine, you need the pan that makes them what they are: neatly cupped, oblong and indented like a elongated scallop shell. Personally, I prefer the plain metal French version, the kind you need to thoroughly butter and flour to prevent sticking. They are work perfectly and last pretty much forever, so long as you wash and dry them carefully afterward to prevent them any flecks of rust from showing up. (The easy way to do this? Soak the pan for a few minutes to loosen any baked-on bits, give a gentle scrub and rinse, then flip over and return to the turned-off but still-warm oven to dry upside down.) There are non-stick versions, and those creepy, flippity-floppity silicone ones, but in my experience, the extra buttering and flouring the metal ones require help give the subtlest whisper of a crust, just a tiny bite of nutty golden-browness to contrast with the sunny, spongy crumb.
As for flavoring, lemon is classic, orange delightful, some specks of vanilla bean perfectly wonderful. You could rub some lavender flowers into a canister of sugar and use the softly floral results. You can even make savory madeleines, crunchy with cornmeal and a hint of rosemary, particularly nice with soup as a first course. I've long adored this corn-muffiny recipe created by Molly O'Neill, which I tore out of a New York Times Magazine circa 1996 and have kept tattered, splashed on, and well-loved ever since. You can melt the butter and then keep going, gently cooking until it smells nutty and turns the color of honey. Strained to remove the solids, this beurre noisette, as our French friends call it, deepens the flavor with a aura of toasted hazelnut. Right now, my favorite accompaniment to a bowl of summer peaches and nectarines is a batch of Meyer lemon madeleines, made from with a backyard lemon picked right off the tree.
Recipe: Meyer Lemon Madeleines
Summary: These spongy, delicate little cakes taste best fresh out of the oven. If you need to make them ahead of time, reheat gently and dust with powdered sugar just before serving.
By Stephanie Rosenbaum
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 8-12 minutes
Total time: 23-27 minutes
Yield: 12 to 40 madeleines, depending on the size of pan
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp finely grated Meyer lemon rind
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup flour, plus an additional 2 tbsp for pans
1/4 cup (2 oz/4 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted, plus an additional tbsp of softened butter for pans
powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Depending on whether you have a sluggish or an eager oven, this can take up to 20 minutes. You really need your oven good and hot to get the batter to rise up in that characteristic madeleine hump, so turn the oven on as soon as you walk in the kitchen. Prepare the madeleine pans: Rub each scallop lightly but thoroughly with softened butter, making sure to grease all the ridges and crannies. Dust the greased pan with flour, shaking it to and fro to make sure each scallop is completely coated. Turn the pan upside down and tap sharply to remove any excess flour. Set aside.
2. Mix lemon rind and sugar together. Add eggs and salt. Using a wire whisk, a hand-held electric mixer, or a stand mixer, beat eggs and sugar together vigorously until mixture lightens and becomes creamy, pale, and thick. By hand, this will take 5-8 minutes; using a mixer, from 4-6 minutes. Don't skimp on this part, since the volume of air mixed in at this stage is crucial to making the cakes spongy and light.
3. Stir in vanilla extract. Gently fold in the flour, followed by the melted butter. Fold gently until just combined.
4. Spoon batter into each scallop, filling it 2/3 full. Bake for 8-12 minutes, until firm and just beginning to color around the edges. Remove from the oven. Let stand for 1 minute, then flip pan over and tap firmly. Most of the scallops should drop out; run a butter knife around the edges of any that remain to loosen.
5. Wrap in a napkin to keep warm. Sift powdered sugar over the madeleines just before serving.