This post is part of our Behind the Bite series: deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.
The beautifully ornate pâtisserie lined up in Paris’ pastry shops will definitely catch your eye. But it’s none other than the humble madeleine which has become one of France’s favorite sweet treats.
The simple and unadorned cake is a mix of just flour, sugar, eggs, and butter, brought to life with a squeeze of lemon and instantly recognizable thanks to its pretty shell shape.
Simple? Yes. Delicious? Absolutely. Here’s how this unassuming treat earned its place as one of the quintessential Paris pastries.
The history of the madeleine
Although there is some mystery surrounding the cake’s origins, it’s commonly agreed that the madeleine originated in Commercy, in the Lorraine region of France.
Who came up with the recipe is less clear, but the most popular story goes back to the 1700s, when a woman named Madeleine stood in as the last-minute pastry chef for a dinner held by the Duke of Lorraine. Under pressure to think of something to bake, Madeleine decided on her grandmother’s cake recipe. It was such a hit that the duke then named the cakes after her.
When King Louis XV visited Lorraine in 1755, madeleines won him over as well. In fact, he loved them so much that he gave them to his wife, Marie, who introduced them to the French court at Versailles. And of course, once they were popular with royalty, then everyone else also wanted a bite.
The cake achieved a new level of fame in the 1920s, when Marcel Proust spoke about them in his book “In Search of Lost Time.” He waxes poetically about how the cake, dipped in his cup of tisane (herbal tea), reminded him of his childhood, when his aunt Léonie used to give him a bite of her madeleine every Sunday morning. It’s a reference which has now made its way into modern French culture as the expression, “What is your madeleine de Proust?”—or in other words, which food reminds you of your childhood?
Where to find the best madeleines in Paris
Of course, Salon Proust at the Ritz Paris makes the perfect setting to enjoy the legendary writer’s favorite cake, courtesy of pastry chef François Perret. The hotel’s thé à la française—the French version of British afternoon tea—starts with a miniature madeleine served in an elegant china bowl.
Rather than serving this madeleine with tea, à la Proust, they pour warm milk flavored with lemon, chocolate or strawberry over the cake until the liquid just covers the bottom of the dish. Then, be patient—it’s recommended to wait before tasting so that the flavor can infuse. A sugar-glazed madeleine is also served during the tea itself.
Just opposite the salon at the hotel’s Bar Vendôme, Perret serves up one of his signature desserts, a supersized and super-indulgent version of the madeleine, filled with chestnut honey, toasted almonds, Savoy biscuits, and Chantilly cream.
According to Le Figaro—not to mention a legion of madeleine fans—the best madeleine in Paris can be found at the unassuming Blé Sucre, a small bakery headed up by Fabrice Le Bourdat. Here, Le Bourdat creates madeleines made for sharing. His popular lemon and sugar-glazed versions only come in packs of four, while the huge madeleine à partager (“madeleine to share”) might be the biggest in the city!
If you want to try something different than the traditional citrus glaze, head to La Pâtisserie des Rêves. The name means “The Patisserie of Dreams” in English, and they’re not wrong! Here, the madeleines come in one of four flavors: vanilla, chocolate, pistachio or orange.
Another standout is French institution Fauchon (coincidentally located on place de la Madeleine). Here, they experiment even further with pistachio and raspberry and chocolate praline-flavored madeleines. You can even find their recipe for chocolate madeleines online if you want to try and recreate your own Proust moment back home.