Two years ago, I tagged along on my guy’s drive down to San Francisco for Father’s Day. As we chugged up and down the hilly streets, butterflies the size of elephants flapped around my stomach. I really wanted to make a good first impression on his grandparents, but as a shy awkward introvert, I usually forget how to carry a conversation after the initial round of introductions.
Once we eased into our chairs around the formal dining table, I smiled and nodded as his sweet talkative grandmother chatted away next to me while passing around serving dishes of salad, turkey, and pasta. I carefully maneuvered my fork and knife around my plate, praying I wouldn’t drop croutons or macaroni in my lap to taint their opinion of me, but I concentrated so hard that I completely neglected to save room for dessert. (That never happens—it’s the most important meal of my day!)
My guy’s mom baked madeleines for the gathering, and despite my inability to shove another crumb into my belly, I nearly reached for one of the small golden cakes. Their elegant shell shape captivated me; they looked so delicate and classy.
Fast forward to last month, when my mom frantically phoned me two weeks before Christmas begging for gift ideas. She normally shops for presents over the summer to beat the crowds, but she fell behind after our family emergency this fall. As an incredibly indecisive person, those few extra months gave me enough time to compile a list, and I included lots of baking tools: more Silpats, a candy thermometer (thanks Rachel!), and a madeleine pan.
On Christmas morning, Mom handed me a bright red bag from under the tree. “Who’s it for?” I asked, searching for the nonexistent tag.
“We thought the ‘Williams Sonoma’ script across the side would give it away,” she replied, and I gleefully tore out the tissue paper to find a gorgeous gold madeleine pan (and an adorable miniature one too!).
After returning from Arizona, I clicked around the internet, researching the history of and recipes for madeleines. Although the size of a cookie, they’re technically little cakes that first appeared in 18th or 19th century French baking. Each shell-shaped cavity in the pan holds the génoise batter (a type of sponge cake), known for its fine crumb, thoroughly beaten eggs, and lots of melted butter.
Not exactly healthy.
Instead of throwing in the towel and letting my new pans collect dust for years, I created a lightened version while still preserving the classic techniques and flavors. With their delicate texture and buttery flavor, these Apricot Pistachio Madeleines fooled my taste testers—they thought these were the indulgent ones instead of healthier low fat, skinny cakes!
Madeleines begin with the melted butter. Most recipes require almost 1 full stick—that’s ½ cup! To cut out excess fat and calories, I reduced the amount to only 2 tablespoons of butter and added in extra vanilla extract. Vanilla imitates butter’s flavor, making these taste just as rich as the traditional ones. I also mixed in a tiny bit of milk—not a typical génoise ingredient—to compensate for using less liquid.
Note: It’s important to melt the butter and measure out the milk prior to starting on the rest of the recipe. This allows the melted butter to cool and the milk to warm to room temperature before you add them to the batter, which is key to the delicate texture of the madeleines.
A génoise cake batter is defined by its eggs. Traditional recipes required no leavening agent and solely depended on vigorously beating air into whole eggs instead. Although most modern madeleines cheat and add a little baking powder (including mine!), you’ll still beat the eggs until doubled in size.
After mixing in the vanilla and milk, treat the beaten eggs like whipped egg whites. Incorporating lots of air creates a fragile structure, so gently fold in the remaining ingredients with a spatula! Sprinkle the flour over the batter in 4 parts, sifting before each addition, to preserve the light and delicate texture. Finally, stream in the melted butter and cover it with plastic wrap to chill.
You must let the batter rest for at least 2 hours. (Overnight works too—I did 18 hours for my first batch!) Chilling lets the gluten relax and helps with their characteristic bump on the back, like in my mini madeleines above. However, I prefer a graceful shallow arch, like in my larger ones below. The big bumps look like strange boils to me, and when you flip them over, the madeleines totter about precariously like turtles on their backs! (If you want the bump, this helpful guide explains how to achieve that.)
In honor of the madeleines’ French heritage and my sweet mother, I folded in dried apricots and pistachios. On our last visit to Paris, we discovered a boulangerie selling apricot and pistachio tarts, by which Mom immediately became infatuated. We failed to find them at any other shop, and when we returned two days later, the store had sold out. She’s been pining for them ever since!
Now we’re ready to bake! Generously coat the madeleine pans using cooking spray with flour. Just like with the bottoms of regular cake pans, the flour prevents the cakes from sticking and helps them release easily. It’s important to meticulously coat all of the little crevices so the madeleines pop right out.
Once a few of the madeleines turn golden around the edges, pull them out of the oven! They bake quickly—only 12-15 minutes with well-chilled batter—so keep a watchful eye on them. After just 1 minute of cooling, transfer them to a wire rack to prevent them from drying out.
Rich buttery flavor fills every bite of these soft Apricot Pistachio Madeleines. Studded with sweet dried fruit and little nuggets of nuts, the pale yellow cakes look elegant and inviting with their classy seashell shape. Their moist delicate crumb pairs perfectly with coffee and tea, or nibble on one plain each time you wander into the kitchen. (That’s what I did!)
With only 65 calories in each madeleine, you can still enjoy dessert without derailing your diet. (Perfect for those New Years Resolutions!) And with how much I enjoyed baking these, you can expect many more madeleine recipes from me this year!