Every year around this time, my mind invariably fills with thoughts of France.
In my former life as a cruise director, Tony and I spent several spring seasons sailing around the western coast of France, visiting famous port cities like Bordeaux, Rouen and Saint-Malo, as well as some lesser-known stops like Belle-Île, a summer haven for the French but secluded enough to stay off the tourist trail, and Île d'Aix, the tiny little island of approximately 250 residents, where Napoleon spent his last night on French soil and the only cars allowed still today are service vehicles.
Some days we had enough free time to get out and really explore, but most often we could get away for just an hour or two. These short excursions almost always included a stop at a pâtisserie (French for bakery), which can be found in nearly every French town, no matter the size.
No one does a bakery quite like the French. With their windowed store fronts showcasing some of the most beautiful pastries I've ever seen, a pâtisserie is a dessert-lover's paradise.
Inside, you'll find glass cases filled with an incredible assortment of hand-crafted confections, in all shapes, sizes and colors, made with such precision that I would never attempt to make one at home. These are not your standard bakery baked goods - these are edible masterpieces.
Now, I love to bake but I have no skills, or patience, for the art of fine pastry. However, I have one favorite French confection that is simple enough to make at home, with great results every time: the classic Madeleine cookie.
With their signature scallop shell shape and lightly golden color, Madeleines are one of my favorite cookies for spring and summer. They have a wonderful texture that is more like a sponge cake than a cookie, and a delicate flavor that, once mastered, is versatile enough to be adapted with flavor add-ins like fruit and liqueurs.
Because they are a French creation, there is some technique involved when making Madeleines. But, while the process may seem a little fussy, it is simple enough even for most beginners.
To ensure your success, use quality ingredients and the right equipment, measure and prepare all your ingredients first, and follow the directions exactly.
A special pan is required to create the classic shell shape, and you can find Madeleine pans in various sizes available both locally and online.
I've been making Madeleine cookies for several years, and each time I am transported back to our bakery adventures in France. Madeleines are best when served right away, but the batter can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to three days before baking, so you can bake just what you need and save the rest for another day.
As I baked my latest batch of Madeleines, with accordion-filled sounds of French music playing in the background and heavenly scents wafting through my kitchen, I hardly noticed the April snow that was falling outside.
The cookies came out of the oven, perfectly shaped and golden brown. I dusted them lightly with powdered sugar before taking a bite ... et, voila! It was springtime in France, again. Bon appetit.
Makes: about 24 3 ½-inch Madeleines
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon or orange zest (optional)
In a small saucepan, melt the butter and then keep it warm.
In a small bowl, use a whisk to combine the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In the bowl of your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the eggs and both sugars at high speed until the mixture is thick and pale in color. This will take at least 5 to 8 minutes, and the batter should fall in heavy ribbons when done.
Add the vanilla extract and lemon zest, if using, and beat again on high for 30 seconds.
Sift about one-third of the flour mixture over the whipped eggs and use a rubber spatula to gently fold it in until combined. Sift and fold in half of the remaining mixture, and then sift and fold in the rest, being careful not to overmix, or the batter will deflate.
Take about 1 cup of the batter and fold it into the warm melted butter. This will "temper" the butter and make it easier to fold into the batter. Then, with a spatula, gently fold the butter mixture completely into the egg batter. Cover the bowl with plastic and refrigerate the batter for at least one hour. The batter may be refrigerated for up to 3 days before using.
Preheat your oven to 374 degrees.
For best results and easy removal of the cookies: Use a pastry brush and melted butter to generously grease the molds of the Madeleine pan. Dust the molds with flour, tap the sides of the pan until each mold is coated and then tap out the excess flour. Refrigerate the pan for at least 10 minutes, or until the butter hardens.
Use a small ice cream scoop or tablespoon and place a generous mound of batter in the center of each prepared mold. Do not spread the batter out into the mold. This step will ensure that the Madeleines have the classic "humped" appearance.
Bake the cookies for about 8 to 11 minutes, until the edges are golden brown and the centers spring back when lightly touched. Be careful not to overbake or the cookies will be dry.
Remove the pan from the oven and immediately tap it against the counter to release the Madeleines, then place the cookies on a wire rack to cool.
Serve immediately for best results, or store in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 or 2 days, or in the freezer for up to one month. Dust with powdered sugar just before serving.
Lightly adapted from thejoyofbaking.com
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"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 13-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello//thelostitalian.areavoices.com.