This very special rendition of the traditional madeleine is made with browned butter and the scraped pulp of a vanilla bean. Its flavor is reminiscent of butterscotch (when I first noticed that, I decided to play it up and included a splash of booze in the recipe). Its texture is precisely what you want in a mad: light when it’s warm (the most delicious temperature for a madeleine) and much like your favorite buttery sponge cake a day later (the most wonderful texture for dunking).
While you can make madeleines in small molds of any shape, the classic molds are shell-shaped. By baking the batter in these shallow molds, you get cookies that are beautifully brown on the scalloped side and lightly golden on the plain side. Actually, the plain side isn’t so plain — it’s normally mounded. I say normally, because hundreds of madeleines later, I’ve discovered that the “bumps” can be perfidious — you can’t count on them to turn up reliably. It’s annoying but not tragic, since the flavor and texture are consistently as they should be despite the occasional, always puzzling flatness.
Under the theory that it’s impossible to have too many choices when it comes to mads, I urge you to make these beauties, the Classics (see Playing Around).
To prepare the madeleine pan, use a pastry brush (easiest) or a paper towel to coat the molds with softened butter, then dust with flour and tap out the excess. (If you’d like, you can coat the molds with baker’s spray.) Do this even if your molds are nonstick or silicone; it’s good to be on the safe side. If your pan is silicone, place it on a baking sheet.
Whisk the flour and baking powder together.
Put the butter in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat, swirling the pan occasionally. Allow the butter to bubble away until it turns a deep honey brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t turn your back on the pan — the difference between brown and black is measured in seconds. And don’t worry about the little brown flecks in the bottom of the pan — they’re a good thing. Pour the butter into a heatproof glass or bowl and measure out 6 tablespoons, which is what you’ll need for the mads (and probably exactly what you’ll have).
Put the sugar in a medium bowl. If you’re using a vanilla bean (if using extract, you’ll add it later), slice it in half lengthwise and use the back of your knife to scrape out the soft, seedy pulp; put the pulp on top of the sugar. (You can use the pod to make vanilla sugar.) Using your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the eggs and whisk energetically for a minute. If you’re using extract, whisk it in now. Whisk in the salt and honey. Still using the whisk (or switch to a spatula, if it’s more comfortable for you) and a soft touch, blend in the dry ingredients. When they are completely incorporated, gently stir and fold in the melted butter a little at a time, checking the bottom of the bowl to make sure that none pools there. Stir in the alcohol or milk.
Divide the batter among the molds. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 or 3 hours.
Getting ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and place a baking sheet on the rack. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Carefully place the madeleine mold on the hot baking sheet. Or, if using a silicone mold, leave it on the baking sheet it was on. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the madeleines are puffed and browned around the edges. Remove the pan from the oven and, if it’s metal, grab an end and tap the pan on the counter — the madeleines should come tumbling out. If you’re using a silicone mold, turn it upside down over the counter and pull at two opposite ends until the cookies fall out. Pry out any reluctant mads with a table knife.
Dust the cookies with confectioners’ sugar and serve them as soon as you can.
Playing around: Classic Madeleines. Don’t brown the butter. Instead, melt 3/4 stick unsalted butter and set it aside to cool. Omit the vanilla bean and rub the freshly grated zest of 1 lemon into the sugar; whisk 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract into the batter after the eggs are incorporated. Finally, use milk instead of the alcohol (or not — the classics are wonderful with a hit of dark rum).
Double-Butter Mads. One morning I was drawn into the kitchen by the scent of browning butter (an unmistakable aroma) and found my husband at the stove. He’d melted butter in a skillet, let it brown and, having split day-old madeleines in half lengthwise, was toasting them in the hot butter. Eaten right out of the skillet with a dab of jam, they were sensational. In fact, they were so good that it would be worth letting some of your mads go stale just to have them like this the next morning.
Storing: The madeleine batter can be kept, covered with a piece of plastic wrap pressed against the surface, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. The baked cookies can be kept covered at room temperature for up to 1 day; their texture will not stay the same, but their taste will. The madeleines can also be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months. Thaw, then warm briefly in a 350-degree-F oven before serving.