The name biscuit may be derived from the French language (roughly translating as “twice cooked”) but offer a Frenchman a biscuit and you’ll be pretty sure to be greeted with blank looks. However, the French do have a wide selection of delicious and usually dainty sweet delicacies that I suppose the English would call biscuits and Americans would describe as cookies. The French refer to them in general as “gateaux”.
My favourite thing about them are the names; they are so evocative and descriptive and really part of what makes them so enjoyable is the fun of the name. The French enjoy such biscuits as “Oreilles de Neron” or Nero’s Ears, “langues de chat” cat’s tongues and, from Alsace, “Dent de Loup” which translates as “wolves teeth” not only are the traditionally made ones shaped in a triangular mould to give it the look of a sharp wolves tooth but the addition of a good splash of brandy to the recipe gives them a bit of bite.
I really like “sables” which, along with “langues de chat” are delicately flavoured with vanilla and melt in the mouth leaving behind a buttery richness similar to Scottish shortbread or Danish Butter cookies.
But best of all I love “madeleines”. I discovered them as a child when I found some madeleine moulds at the back of a kitchen cupboard. When I asked my mother what they were she answered “little shell of cake so generously sensual beneath the piety of its stem pleating”. No, I had no idea either! Well those words come from Proust’s “A la recherch du temps perdu” (In remembrance of time forgotten) and as I have got older I have found that Proust is inextricably linked to the little delicacy that is the madeleine. My mother had bought the moulds because she had read Proust’s description of them though she had never used them and so the first madeleines I ate were ones I had baked with my mother.
And this is her recipe:
170 grams unsalted butter
450 grams plain flour
4 large eggs
300 grams sugar
zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
First melt the butter over a medium heat; you want the butter to be quite brown with a slightly nutty aroma but I am pretty impatient and don’t usually take it to this stage for me merely melted is fine.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs until they have increased twice in volume, then still using the whisko gradually add the sugar. Continue to whisk until the mixture is thick. Finally fold in the lemon zest and the vanilla extract Then fold in the flour but do not over mix.
Spoon the batter into a greased madeleine mould and bake in a preheated oven (300 degrees Fahrenheit) for about fifteen minutes until they are just golden brown. You should remove them from the moulds as soon as you take them from the oven and dust with icing sugar. You should get about 24 madeleines from this mixture.