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Cooking Challenge: Baking French treats madeleines and palmiers

By Emily Young, Times Correspondent
French cinnamon palmiers, made by Emily Young. Photos by Emily Young, Times correspondent.

I am in the throes of a lemon zest crisis.

Now that it’s cool enough outside for baking — and by "cool," I mean below 90 degrees — my friend Sarah and I have decided to challenge ourselves with two French sweets: madeleine tea cakes and palmier cookies. Before Sarah arrives, I have the misguided idea to prep the lemon zest. Hence, my crisis.

I am hunched over the kitchen counter, carefully shaving curls of lemon rind, then chopping them into minuscule pieces. My hands are sticky with juice. How can I fill an entire tablespoon with these scraps of peel? Do we really need zest?

That’s when Sarah arrives, carrying her madeleine pan. She marches into the kitchen with classic confidence.

"That’s not zested, that’s peeled!" Sarah exclaims, delighted by my crisis. She takes the lemon and expertly scrapes it against a grater, which is how you are supposed to make zest. She works on the intensive care floor of a hospital, saving lives, so lemons are not exactly a crisis for her.

While we chill dough for the madeleines, we prepare the French cinnamon palmiers. Now this is my kind of recipe: You simply coat store-bought puff pastry dough with a buttery mix of cinnamon and sugar. It’s easy, fast and super fun.

I roll the dough from each long side to meet in the middle, forming a pastry scroll. Then I cut it into cookies. As a kid, I spent countless afternoons making Sculpey clay cinnamon rolls and other miniscule toy confections. (I never baked, but doll food? My specialty.) My hands slice the pastry roll with the exactness of muscle memory.

Sarah, meanwhile, is worried about what we’ll do with all the cookies. She calculates that we’ll have 60 palmiers. How will we dispose of them? "Random acts of kindness," she suggests. Leave them on neighbors’ doorsteps. Box and send to my boyfriend, who recently moved out of state. Bring them to a fall brunch this weekend.

Personally, I’d rather just eat them.

Placed on the cookie sheet, they remind me of butterflies. No, Sarah says. "They look like X chromosomes." She is studying genetics this semester.

While they bake, we return to the madeleines. Although the recipe suggests chilling the dough for an hour, we don’t leave it that long. Sarah hopes they turn out like her favorite madeleines from Starbucks — vanilla-infused, buttery tea cakes.

We spoon the batter into the pan, shaped specifically for this treat. It smells deliciously like lemon, and Sarah reminds me that this is why it’s good we didn’t give up on the zest. We bake them until the tops of the madeleines spring back to the touch, then slip the next batch of palmiers in the oven.

Sarah opens the oven door to peek at the browning palmiers.

"Yours came out so precise! Every single one is uniform."

I let her in on my secret doll-food making skills.

The verdict

I thought the lemon zest was my crisis, but I was wrong. As I lift the last batch of palmiers from the oven, I realize I forgot to cover the cookie sheet with parchment paper. The caramelized cinnamon-sugar has glued the cookies to the metal sheet. A third of the cookies are ruined. It’s tragic.

But the cookies that survive? Delicious.

"They look like the curled hipster mustaches," Sarah says, apparently forgetting about her X chromosomes.

We agree that the madeleines are the winner, even though Sarah is disappointed they don’t taste as vanilla-flavored as Starbucks’. "I just don’t know how I feel about the lemon," she says.

I know how I feel about the lemon. It’s amazing. The tangy flavor cuts back on the sweetness, which makes it tempting to eat madeleine after madeleine. They’re light, buttery and browned on the edges. We dust them with powdered sugar. Arranged on a white plate, they look like edible shells.

We pack up Sarah’s share in a small parchment-lined tin.

If you have time, devote a fall afternoon to cooking these tea cakes. They’re well worth the time. Bonus points if you have a friend who is an expert lemon zester.

Classic French Madeleinese_SFrB11 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon, divided

? cup white sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon lemon zest

Powdered sugar (optional)

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Slightly brown the butter by leaving it to bubble in the pan until it smells toasty and starts to color. The butter will turn very quickly from toasty to burnt, and it will continue to color after it is off the heat unless you pour it into a new container.

Spoon 3 tablespoons of the melted butter into a small bowl or cup and set aside. Let the rest of the butter cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup of the flour and the sugar and set aside. In another medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla, salt, lemon juice and lemon zest until the eggs are frothy.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Use a spatula to stir until just combined. Add the 8 tablespoons melted butter and stir. Do not overmix.

Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator to rest at least 1 hour and up to overnight.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon flour to the 3 tablespoons reserved butter and stir to combine. (If butter has become too firm to stir, melt in the microwave for about 15 seconds.) Using a pastry brush, brush the interiors of the shells with the butter-flour mixture so they are well coated. Place the pans in the freezer for at least an hour.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Fill each well in the madeleine pan with 1 tablespoon of the batter. Remove the other pan from the freezer and fill in the same way.

Place both pans on a baking sheet for easy handling and place in the oven. After 8 minutes, rotate the pans. Check again 5 minutes later. The madeleines should be browning around the edges and puffed up a little in the middle. Using your finger, press lightly on the center hump — when the madeleines are finished baking, it should spring back at your touch.

Remove the madeleines from the oven and let cool for 2 minutes. Using a fork, gently loosen the madeleines from their molds and then tip the whole pan out onto a cooling rack or towel. Once cool, dust lightly with powdered sugar and serve. If you are freezing or storing the madeleines, do not dust with the sugar until you are about to serve.

Store cooled madeleines in an airtight container for a few days or freeze them in a double wrapping of plastic wrap for several months.

Makes 24 madeleines.

Source: the Kitchn

French Cinnamon Palmierse_SFrB? cup granulated sugar

1?½ teaspoons cinnamon

3 tablespoons butter, melted

½ pound (1 sheet) puff pastry

1 egg, beaten

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Stir together the sugar, cinnamon and melted butter in a small bowl until it forms a paste.

Roll the puff pastry into a large rectangle, about 15 inches by 12 inches. Using a pastry brush or spoon, spread the cinnamon sugar paste in a thin, even layer over the dough. Starting at the long ends of the rectangle, loosely roll each side inward until they meet in the middle. To hold difficult pastry together, brush it with the egg, if needed.

Slice the pastry crosswise into ¼-inch palmiers — they’ll look like little scrolls — and arrange them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake them for 12 to 15 minutes, until they puff and turn golden brown. Remove them from the baking sheet and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 30 cookies.

Source: the Spruce