I learned something in planning this year’s Chanukah party: When you host a party every December for half a decade and, year after year, pile your table high with certain tried and trues, your guests may develop a sense of… protectiveness, shall we say, about the offerings.
After five years, I thought it might be time for a few tweaks to the menu here and there. I quickly learned that such radical ideas would not be tolerated. Reactions to the mention of possible changes ran the gamut, from the anxious (“But you’ll keep the carrot cake cupcakes, right? The almond tarts?” Furrow, furrow, giggle, furrow) to the outraged (“No! It’s tradition!”). One friend simply cocked her head, and let out an “Okaaaay…” half-sigh, half-whisper, as if I had just told her that I’d decided to run off with my secret Italian lover. To the moon.
I would have to proceed carefully. In the end – as a comparison with last year’s party map will show – I got rid of very little.
Much to the relief of everyone involved, I guarded the flame with plenty of “classics” – cupcakes, cookies, tarts, and toffees – but fanned it, too, with a couple of somethings new. First, there were mini chocolate hazelnut cakes with sea salt, which you might remember from earlier this year. I eyed the crumb-strewn plate at the end of the night, and immediately knew that these cakes had joined the ranks of Things That Shall Not be Stricken from Parties Chanukah to Come.
On Chanukah, it’s customary to eat foods made with oil (okay, usually fried in oil, hence the latkes), to celebrate the drop of oil that, according to legend, burned on and on, against all odds. So for my second addition, I chose olive oil madeleines. I wasn’t sure what to make of these madeleines at first – a madeleine without butter? – and I’m not the only one. I found them in the recipe index of the August, 2009 issue of Gourmet not under the heading, “Desserts,” as one might expect, but in that odd little category tacked on at the end: “Miscellaneous.” It’s a strange place for a cake-like cookie, or a cookie-like cake, or however you might describe a thing that, either way, resembles dessert in one form or another. But after a single bite, I realized that the editors were right. These madeleines are decidedly miscellaneous. With only a half a cup of sugar in the recipe and three times the amount of olive oil, they’re almost – almost – savory. It kind of messes with you, actually. In a way that makes you eat another, and another still, in an effort to figure out just what, exactly, is going on in there amidst that tender crumb. Note: I am not complaining.
The recipe calls for the grated zest of two lemons, and I upped it to three at the suggestion of both Eli and my sister, Kasey. Still, the lemon flavor didn’t quite pop. I considered adding an extra hit of lemon via a few drops of lemon extract, a squeeze or two of juice, or a final shower of zest. But then it hit me: These madeleines are called Olive-Oil madeleines, not Lemon Olive Oil madeleines. The predominant flavor is supposed to be the oil, not the lemon. Once I alerted myself to this fact, I decided that I liked them this way, with the earthiness of the oil at top billing, and the lemon hovering more around than inside of the little cakes themselves. There’s a faint aura of citrus that hangs in the air over these madeleines, something you can smell, but just barely taste. It’s nice.
I’ve made these madeleines a couple of times already, and I’ll likely make them again, though probably not for next year’s Chanukah party. The trouble is the outer crust. Straight from the oven, it's delicate and crisp and absolutely perfect. But at room temperature, the crust turns soft and, after about an hour, borderline soggy. A solution to this problem is built into the recipe: “Madeleines can be made 4 hours ahead. Reheat, wrapped in foil, in oven until warm, about 15 minutes.” I did that, and it worked to some degree, but nothing beats that straight-from-the-oven crust.
What it all boils down to is that you should make these madeleines, and eat them right away. Which means that while they may not be the best candidates for leaving out on a plate during an hours-long party, they are ideally suited to the close of an intimate dinner party: Prepare the batter in advance, spoon it into the madeleine pan just before you clear the dishes, bake for 12-minutes, and serve hot, preferably paired with something cold, like ice cream or sorbet. Today, of all days, I should also mention that, dusted with powdered sugar and washed down with a flute of champagne, they would make a very fine midnight snack.
Happy 2011, friends. I saw something today that sums up exactly how I feel about the coming year. Click here. Up and up we go.
Olive Oil Madeleines
Adapted from Gourmet, August 2009
(where it was adapted from the kitchen of Chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park)
5 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups plus
1 Tbs flour
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil; ideally, one you’d happily down by the spoonful
Zest from 3 lemons
Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Whisk together the eggs and the sugar. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until just combined. Whisk in the olive oil and the zest.
Fill each mold of an ungreased madeleine pan with 1 level tablespoon of batter. Don’t worry too much about spreading the batter down into the crevices of the molds. It will spread on its own in the heat of the oven. Bake for about 12 minutes, until the cakes are golden and domed.
Transfer to a rack to cool slightly. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve warm.
Yield: 48 madeleines.