Let me start this post by saying I'm a madeleine snob. A bona fide, unrepentant madeleine snob. Don't talk to me about those nasty little packets of "madeleine" by the cash register at your Starbucks. They're awful, with texture seemingly composed, somehow, of paraffin. Those buckets of shell-shaped stuff masquerading as madeleines at Costco are not much better. They taste as though they're made of Twinkies - oddly spongy, overtly sweet and redolent of fake vanilla. I don't know what those pretenders are exactly, but I assure you they are *not* madeleines.
The perfect madeleine is elusive. It's hard to find even in Paris. The problem is not that it's hard to make. As you will see after this post (and a little time in your own kitchen playing with the recipe) it is not the case. Madeleines, even the perfect ones, are really quite simple to do. The problem, rather, is that its perfection is fleeting. It's one of those things that are perfect minutes out of the oven, and then the quality erodes as the minutes tick by. The nearest specimen to a perfect madeleine I've had was a plain madeleine, the classic, baked to order and served warm and crisp at the edges with coffee to finish a hearty meal at Alain Ducasse's Aux Lyonais in Paris. It's been years, but it could've easily been yesterday.
The perfect madeleine, the Platonic Ideal of the form, is somewhere between a tender, moist cake, and a crisp, sweet cookie. The crumb should be tender, but not so it disintegrates when dunk into a cup of perfectly innocent tea. We all (claim to) read Proust - some of us even know it's proost like boost and not proust like sprout - so we all know he dunk his. The dunkable structure is hence important, even at the expense of it being ever-so-slightly dry. The perfect madeleines also must have the signature bump, I prefer just a gentle, small bump, not an excessive hump that looks more like a malignant growth than anything else. My objection to the malignant hump is not for aesthetic but flavor. In order to get that kind of hump you'll need to use a *lot* of baking powder, which means you're going to taste it in your madeleines too.
Also important in a perfect madeleine is the scalloped edges and evenly brown color of the crust. This is why I don't like using silicone molds to make them. No matter how easy they claim to be, they bake up madeleines that are not evenly brown on the bottom, but more in ugly patches or streaks unbefitting a perfect madeleine. I use an old tin madeleine mold, the regular shiny sort, not a dark non-stick kind (which turns the madeleines too dark.) When it is buttered and floured properly, my tin bakes up madeleines with gorgeously, evenly brown crust that pop out of the molds easily with a gentle tap on the counter. (The tin mold I use is from Dehillerin in Paris, but Amazon has this one which is also good.)
This particular recipe is the one I developed for my friend Daniel Patterson's article on the fragrant bergamot citrus for San Francisco magazine. Even if you don't know what a bergamot is, you know of it. It's what gives Earl Grey tea its ambrosia. In this recipe, I don't just use the zest, but also the juice to add even more depth to the madeleine's perfume. If you don't have bergamot, you can use just about any fragrant citrus you can find - seville, meyer, even lime might be fun (though I've never tried it.)