A madeleine is a delicate, scallop-shaped French tea cake often served with fruit or sherbet. In its preparation, flour, eggs, and sugar are beaten with a large proportion of butter, incorporating as much air as possible; then grated lemon rind and vanilla extract, and sometimes rum, are added. After baking in the customary 12-shell tin, the pastry is served plain or dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
The origins of the madeleine are disputed, but it was brought to its acme, and thence to broad fame, in the 18th century by the pastry chefs of Commercy and Liverdun, two communes of the Lorraine region in northeastern France.
The French author Marcel Proust immortalized the madeleine in his cycle novel Remembrance of Things Past, in which a taste of the cake is said to have evoked the surge of memory and nostalgia. Madeleines are perhaps most famous outside France for their association with involuntary memory in the Marcel Proust novel À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past in the first translation, more recently translated as In Search of Lost Time), in which the narrator experiences an awakening upon tasting a madeleine dipped in tea:
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…
— Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1: Swann's Way
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Some sources say madeleines may have been named for a 19th century pastry cook, Madeleine Paulmier, but other sources have it that Madeleine Paulmier was a cook in the 18th century for Stanisław Leszczyński, whose son-in-law, Louis XV of France, named them for her.