Madeleines are very small cakes with a distinctive shell-like shape acquired from being baked in pans with shell-shaped depressions. Their flavour is similar to, but somewhat lighter than, pound cake, with a pronounced butter-and-lemon taste.
Some sources, including the New Oxford American Dictionary, say madeleines may have been named for a 19th century pastry cook, Madeleine Paulmier, but other sources have it that Madeleine Paulmier was a cook in the 18th century for Stanisław Leszczyński, whose son-in-law, Louis XV of France, named them for her. The Larousse Gastronomique offers two conflicting versions of the Madeleine's history.
There is an old French saying that madeleines are supposed to take one back to one's childhood.
Aside from the traditional moulded pan, commonly found in stores specialising in kitchen equipment and even hardware stores, few tools are required to make madeleines. Traditional recipes include very finely ground nuts (usually almonds) as well as common cake ingredients such as flour, eggs, butter, sugar and vanilla.
“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”
- — Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1: Swann's Way.