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The Independent Culture
THE MOST celebrated cake in French literature was baked in its own special tin. Shaped like a fluted scallop shell, it moulded Proust's "squat, plump, little cake", with its delicate perfume of orange-flower water, to give the petite madeleine its distinctive identity. For-tunately, no amount of pointless updating in the guise of a jam filling or a chocolate coating, neither of which go well with a lime-flower tisane, can diminish the enduring appeal of this classic of 19th-century baking.

Above the recipe in the 1881 edition of La Cuisiniere de la Campagne et de La Ville Librairie Audot (a book that was the French equivalent of Mrs Beeton), an engraving shows four different moules pour madeleines of which the first and largest is in the shape of a shell. The other more complicated designs are considerably less practical - a cake mixture would adhere to them very readily. This may be why, a century later, the only madeleine cake and cake tin you're likely to come across in France will be shell-shaped.

A stiff dough, such as for most breads, can be baked without a tin. As soon as the mixture is enriched with butter and eggs - as in a brioche or saffron cake - it becomes soft and unmanageable and has to be baked in a tin.

The temptation to make a baking tin not only functional but also decorative is irresistible to anyone with a baking temperament. Bakers in ancient Rome imprinted a leaf pattern on the underside of their loaves. And from the time of the Crusades, when the European kitchen felt the influence of the Middle East, we developed a fondness for sweetly spiced food and festival breads, cakes and pastries, baked in special shapes.

A few ceramic cake moulds survive in the fine baking traditions of central and eastern Europe, like the terracotta moulds for baking yeast-leavened kugelhopf from Austria. But clay can break, so a metal mould is likely to last longer. Moreover, it transmits heat more efficiently, and so most of today's cake tins, tart tins and baking sheets are manufactured from heavy gauge aluminium and steel.

Early cake tins are likely to be tin-plated iron dating from the end of the 18th century when it was discovered how to raise and stamp moulds in one operation. You can still find 19th-century tin-plated steel cake tins, either restored or in need of some deft work with wire wool. If you wish to use old cake tins, they need to be carefully scrubbed and then well lined with baking parchment or double-layer greaseproof paper so that no metallic taint is transmitted to the food.

Modern cake tins are far easier to use and maintain now that a long-lasting, non-stick surface has been devised. I find that Wilkin-son's Silverstone cake tins and Prestige Master Bakeware work most satisfactorily. Buy the best quality tins you can afford and they will last a lifetime. Heavy gauge tins are preferable to those made from thinner, cheaper metal, which can buckle in the heat of the oven. Fruit cakes, in particular, call for heavy gauge tins to prevent the outside of the cake from singeing while the interior is not yet set. The old trick of insulating the tin by covering the outside with layers of parcel paper is cheap and effective.

Plain, uncoated, aluminium cake tins usually need to be lined with non- stick baking parchment or buttered greaseproof paper to prevent cakes from sticking, though for a sponge cake, you can often get away with brushing the inside with butter - ideally clarified - and then dusting with a thin layer of caster sugar; but turn the cake on to a wire rack to cool within five minutes of taking it from the oven. The most durable non-stick lining for baking sheets is a siliconised fabric sheet, which is reusable so long as you wipe it over with a damp cloth each time. Sold in sheets and rolls - Lakeland Plastics call it Magic Carpet - you cut it to fit your own tins.

Another worthwhile development is the double-skinned cake tin constructed with an insulating layer of air trapped between two thin sheets of aluminium. This works specially well with rich buttery mixtures that scorch easily, such as shortbread.

French-style tart tins with fluted sides and removable bases are now available here in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. The polished metal surface needs only a thin coat of butter or oil to grease it. But not even the best tin in the world will prevent your pastry from being soggy across the base unless you take trouble to bake it sufficiently - it should be just changing colour - before adding the filling.

The many different cake tins in my kitchen are crammed into cupboards and drawers or, ranged on the highest shelves, form a frieze around the room. Though only a dozen are in regular use, I feel curiously attached to them all, with their Proustian memories of family life. But for anyone about to acquire a basic set, the following represent a useful start: 22cm/812in round spring-form tin for cakes, set mousses and creams; 1 large baking sheet for flat bread, pizzas, crusty loaves, cookies and biscuits; 23-25cm/9-10in tart tin with removable base; 20-23in/8-9 square cake tin for gingerbread.

A keen baker will also require: a loaf tin for bread and brioche; a slope- sided moule a manque; a tray of patty tins for small cakes and tartlets; and one special cake tin for making angel cake, or a good-quality, ideally non-stick, tin for madeleines.

To make clarified butter: Slowly melt half a packet of unsalted butter in a small pan. Remove from the heat and carefully pour the clear yellow liquid into a small bowl, leaving behind the cloudy milk solids, which can be used in cooking. Leave clarified butter in a cool place until set. Cover and store in a refrigerator for up to six months.


The best 19th-century madeleine recipe I've come across - from Audot (see above).

Makes 24 small cakes

clarified butter, melted (see above)

55g/2oz unsalted butter

140g/5oz caster sugar

finely grated zest of 12 small lemon

3 eggs, separated

1 teaspoon orange-flower water

115g/4 oz plain white flour - French, if available

Brush clarified butter into the shell-shaped moulds of a madeleine cake tin.

Cream the butter in a warmed bowl and gradually beat in the sugar with the lemon zest. Beat in the egg yolks with orange flower water. In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold into the butter mixture alternately with the sieved flour. Place a rounded teaspoon of the mixture into each of the madeleine moulds and spread level.

Bake in an oven preheated to 180C/350F/ Gas 4 for about 15 minutes or until golden and the little cakes are just starting to shrink from the tin. Cool in the tin for one minute then use a blunt-ended knife to transfer the cakes to a wire rack to cool.