Let them eat madeleines

It's fun to surprise guests, especially with an unexpected twist on dessert. It's even more fun when the dessert in question -- a basket of warm-from-the-oven madeleines --actually makes your life easier.

Madeleines are popping up all over now, from coffee shops to big-box grocery stores. They're often packaged as cookies, but they really are shell-shaped tea cakes. They adapt to a variety of flavors and finishing touches, although the best recipe may be the simplest: lemony madeleines dusted with powdered sugar. Heavenly.

Heaven, however, does have its price. To make an authentic madeleine, you will need a madeleine pan. But for an investment of $15 to $25, you'll have a pan you'll use the rest of your baking days.

There are several explanations for how the madeleine got its name, but the best story is that a deposed Polish king exiled to France in the 1700s was served these marvelous cakes made by a peasant girl name Madeleine. When the king's daughter married Louis XV, thus improving his fortunes with a move to Versailles, the delicacies were served regularly.

Madeleines also are a symbol of the power of memory, their taste immortalized as the trigger for Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past."

Making madeleines requires only five main ingredients, the most flavorful of which is butter, so use a good unsalted brand. Vanilla and lemon zest build on this richness, but for an additional layer of flavor, try adding some orange flower water. Sometimes called orange blossom water, it's a flavoring distilled from blossoms of the bitter orange and often used in Mediterranean and French foods. It's available in many grocery stores in the flavorings and spices aisle.

Madeleines are characterized by a hump on their smooth side. That's best achieved by chilling the batter, a tip that also makes it easier to spoon into the molds. Best of all, that means you can make the batter at least an hour and up to a day ahead of baking, pulling it from the refrigerator when you're ready to bake -- say, just after you've cleared the entree.

A word about pan prep: To get the madeleines to release easily from the fluted molds, baking sprays don't always do the trick. You may have to resort to a little-- gasp! -- manual labor. Melt a tablespoon of butter and, using a small brush, evenly paint the insides of the molds, then give them a light dusting of flour.

It's worth making the extra effort because there's a bit of showmanship involved here (or perhaps it's just a cheap thrill for the baker). Once the madeleines have baked, spread a clean cloth on the counter, then turn over the pan and sharply rap its edge on the counter. The madeleines should spill from the pan like golden nuggets.

Who said baking isn't theater?

Pile them in a basket, dust with powdered sugar and bring them warm to your guests, who probably have been wondering about the amazing aroma wafting from the kitchen.

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