Cake ‘à la Madeleine’

Madeleines – origins and myths
These little sponge cakes, still widely popular, bear a girl's name that was commonly given to little girls during the period. There are three Madeleines who might lay claim to having invented these sweetmeats.

Might it have been the pastry-cook to the Polish king, Stanislas Leczinski, living in exile in the Lorraine region? This Madeleine, who came from Commercy, may have dreamt up this recipe to prove herself equal to her king, said to be the inventor of another cake, the Rum Baba.

Another story goes that the name comes from a certain Madeleine, who was one of the famous personalities at the Palais-Royal under the Consulat. She sold her cakes in the palace gardens while chanting “C'est la belle Madeleine, qui vend des gâteaux tout chauds!” (Here comes pretty Madeleine selling her nice hot cakes)

Alexandre Dumas claimed for his part that it was Madeleine Paumier, cook to the Perrotin family, after whom the cakes were named.

Why are they shaped like little shells?

Proust (is it possible to talk about madeleines without mentioning his name?) told a different version of the story. These cakes date from the Middle Ages and were first invented at Illiers-Combray (Eure et Loire), which is on one of the pilgrimage routes through France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims would wear a shell (the symbol of St James) as a distinctive emblem, so it was natural that the cakes sold to them should take this shape.


4 eggs
100g salted butter + 20g for the moulds
200g flour
200g caster sugar
8 drops of orange flower water

Period Recipe

Place three or four eggs in a bowl with half a pound of sugar, half a pound of flour, and a quarter pound of melted butter; mix well and add orange water. If your batter is not liquid enough, add another egg. Pour the mixture into some moulds well greased with butter, and bake in the oven.  Bon appétit!  Le cuisinier économe de feu Archambault, Paris, 1821

Bon appetit

1. Preheat oven to 180°C.
2. Break eggs and whisk egg whites to peaks, along with a pinch of salt.
3. Melt butter.
4. Mix egg yolks, sugar, then the melted butter and orange flower water.
5. Fold in whisked egg whites and flour.
6. Fill each little tin in the madeleine cake mould.
7. Cook for about ten minutes.

Type of Recipe