It is said that madeleines, small cockleshell-shaped sponge cakes, were invented in the last century by Madeleine Palmier, a Commercy pastry chef, and the town still bakes them in prodigious numbers to export to the rest of France. Few people have read Marcel Proust’s Du Côté de Chez Swam, but many know of his famous reference to the vivid memory of taking tea with his Aunt Léonie as a child, brought back by the taste of a madeleine dipped in lime blossom tisane.

That instant, ‘...the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents’.

Clearly a ‘Desert Island’ dish for Proust, but just another small rich orange-flavoured sponge for the rest of us. You will need 20–30 madeleine moulds, depending on size, as they are available in small, medium and large. You can buy 20-unit non-stick madeleine moulds for about £ 15 and, if the kitchen department of your local department store doesn’t stock them, by mail order from Nisbets, 01454 855555.

This recipe is taken from Anne Willan’s brilliant French Regional Cooking, sadly out of print but one of the best books about French food ever written.

Read more


  • 125 g/ 4 oz plain flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 4 eggs
  • 125 g/ 4 oz caster sugar
  • 1 tsp orange flower water or the grated zest of 1 orange
  • 125 g/ 4 oz melted unsalted butter, plus more for greasing


Sift the flour into a bowl with the baking powder. In another bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar until light and frothy, then add the orange flower water or grated orange zest. Fold in the flour in three stages. When the last third is almost amalgamated, pour over the melted butter and fold all together as lightly as possible. A heavy hand at this stage will deliver chewy madeleines. Refrigerate this batter for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/ gas 8. Butter and flour the moulds, then fill two-thirds full with batter. Bake for 5 minutes, turn down the oven to 200°C/ 400°F/gas 6 and bake 5–7 minutes more, until golden brown.

Turn out on a wire rack to cool.