With its fluted shell shape and rich, buttery flavor, the madeleine is the prototypical French gâteau de voyage, or “traveling cake.” Compared to flaky croissants or delicate entremets that can barely survive the trip from the pastry shop to the kitchen table, madeleines are a relatively sturdy and unassuming confection whose simple appearance belies their deliciousness. A well-made madeleine is light and airy, with a distinctive buttery aroma. Glazed, filled, or plain, the madeleine is a standard of the childhood “quatre-heures”—four o’clock snack. But for a long time, until recently, the madeleine was perceptibly absent from French bakery shelves.
When French newspaper Le Figaro first noted this dearth back in 2014, it posited a link to the omnipresence of another similar cake, the financier, invented in Paris’ Bourse district as a treat for stockbrokers who feared smudging their important documents with chocolate or cream. The newspaper also highlighted the then-newfound popularity of English-style baked goods like scones and muffins that, Le Figaro quipped, “surfed on the fashion of teatime” and eclipsed this more native treat. But despite a decline in fashionability, the madeleine’s history is long and illustrious.