I read about madeleines long before I met them. They are featured in many of Marcel Proust’s works, but I first found them in “Swann’s Way,” which includes a dozen pages about the French favorite dessert.

My opinion was formed. I never finished the seven volumes Proust wrote, but I did read his other reflections on madeleines, his entryway into thoughts about voluntary and involuntary memories.

When I went to France, they were among the first things I wanted to eat with a cup of tea. They can be found, with varying quality, in gas station vending machines as well as the finest restaurants. Here in Charleston they can be found in a dessert basket at Maison, the new French restaurant on upper King Street, or at Starbucks in a little package to be eaten cold with hot coffee, or at Costco in a package too large to eat in one sitting.

A small cake often called a cookie, madeleines’ origins are subject to small dispute, including whether a pastry chef, Jean Avice, first served them in the 19th century or whether a young girl named Madeleine knew one recipe, her grandmother’s, when she stood in as pastry chef to the Duke of Lorraine.

And then there was King Louis XV, who was so delighted with the madeleines he ate in Lorraine that he gave one to his wife, Marie, who then popularized them in the French court.

Baked in shell-shaped molds and classically made from Genoise batter, they are eaten hot, with coffee, first thing in the morning or with late-afternoon tea, hot or cold. The first one I baked was Julia Child’s recipe using a Genoise made with browned butter. I remember it well and still use it on occasion.

For years pastry chefs tried to duplicate the ones Proust referred to. A certain citrus aroma; not too dry; not too wet; capable of being dunked in tea, would be just right. They had to be crisp, but not crunchy, tender but not crumbly. After all, Proust returned to eating his madeleines over and over to pinpoint his involuntary memory voluntarily, and so was very specific about what a madeleine should be.

Once Proust’s writings were available and scholars compared them, his secret was out.

In an early draft of the story, Proust’s madeleine was instead a piece of hard toast, and in another draft the aroma came from a flowering tree right outside his window. (I like to think of it as the aroma that comes from our lemon and orange trees, but that is left for discovery by another scholar.) Those past pastry chefs suffered disappointment after disappointment as none could make a dunkable madeleine, since they turn to crumbs in a cup of tea. Now we need fret no more.

We won’t ever eat Proust’s madeleine as it doesn’t exist, nor, apparently, did the memory he so embroidered, so we can just make delicious, pretty, light cakes and enjoy them. My friends Cathy Nutaitis and Lauren Furey took the challenge in hand, and came up with their own recipes, some perfect for tea parties; others with Champagne, pate and a bit of cheese.

Corn Muffin Madeleines

Cathy Nuitatis has been part of a baking club for Food 52, and one of the books they worked from was Rose Beranbaum’s new book, Rose's Baking Basics: 100 Essential Recipes, with More Than 600 Step-By-Step Photos.

Cathy had some brand new Le Creuset madeleine molds and adapted Rose’s recipe for corn meal muffins for the madeleines, making two or three changes. They have a full flavor due to the cornmeal, but still have the lightness of a traditional madeleine. She used Geechie Boy stone ground cornmeal.

Ingredients

2/3 cup sour cream, not low fat

3 tablespoons milk

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

2-2/3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons melted butter

Additional butter or bacon grease for pans

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, or 375 degrees if using a dark pan.

Whisk sour cream, milk, egg and vanilla together and set aside.

Mix the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Add the sour cream mixture and stir to combine. Fold in the melted butter.

Brush the madeleine pans with additional melted butter or bacon grease. Spoon the batter into the indentations and smooth the tops. The batter will be thick but will spread to fill the molds. Bake for 6-7 mins or until the tops are firm and dry. The edges should be lightly browned.

Yield: 24 cakes

Lemon Madeleines

The simplest of Lauren Furey’s recipes, these are delicate, moist, and perfect with a cup of tea.

Ingredients

2 eggs

⅔ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon lemon extract

½ teaspoon grated lemon peel, no pith

Pinch of salt

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon cake flour

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Using nonstick spray or butter, grease a madeleine pan with 3-by-1¼ inch indentations.

Thoroughly blend eggs and granulated sugar together with a mixer until they become lighter in color, about three minutes. Beat in lemon extract, grated lemon peel and salt.

Add cake flour, and mix until just combined. Slowly fold in the butter with a rubber spatula.

Carefully spoon 1 tablespoon of batter into each indentation in the madeleine pan. Bake until they look like puffy clouds with a bronze lining on the outside. Let cool for three minutes. Remove carefully, and dust with powdered sugar before serving.

Yield: 12 madeleines

Marbled Cocoa-Orange Madeleines

Lauren Furey created these unforgettably delicious madeleines using all of my favorite ingredients. A masterful combination of goodness.

Ingredients

2 eggs

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Zest of one orange (no pith)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

½ teaspoon lemon extract

Pinch of salt

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour

1 tablespoon high-quality cocoa powder

½ teaspoon almond extract

3.5 ounces dark chocolate, melted

A handful of finely chopped candied ginger, homemade or store-bought

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Using nonstick spray or butter, grease a madeleine pan with 3-by-1¼ inch indentations.

Separate the egg whites from the egg yolks using two separate bowls. Whip the egg whites to form loose peaks. Set to the side.

Beat the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, orange juice, lemon juice, lemon extract and salt until smooth. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Carefully add the flour, and mix just until combined.

Fold the whipped egg whites into the batter until completely blended in. You should not see any egg whites at this point. The batter should be airy and smooth.

Divide the batter in half into two bowls. Using a rubber spatula, fold the cocoa powder and almond extract into one of the bowls, until well blended.

Spoon equal parts of each batter into the indentations of the prepared pan, about ¾ full.

Marble the 2 batters together by dragging the tip of a sharp knife through the 2 colors of batter to create a swirl. There is no right way to do this, it is an opportunity to get creative.

Bake for about 10 minutes, or until they look like puffy clouds with a bronze lining on the outside. Let cool for three minutes. Remove carefully.

Place cooled madeleines onto a sheet of parchment paper. Spread some of the melted chocolate onto each madeleine, using the back of a spoon. Sprinkle ginger on top; cover and let harden in the refrigerator.

Yield: 12 madeleines

Sage Browned Butter Madeleines

This savory recipe by Lauren Furey is wonderful as an accompaniment to an olive, pate and cheese function.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

16 sage leaves (4 large sage leaves for infusing and 12 small leaves for decoration)

⅓ cup instant polenta

2 tablespoons plain (all-purpose) flour

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ cup finely grated parmesan or pecorino romano

Pinch of sea salt

Cracked black pepper, to taste

1 egg

⅓ cup buttermilk

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using nonstick spray or butter, grease a madeleine pan with 3-by-1¼ inch indentations. Place a sage leave in the center of each indentation, pretty side up.

To brown the butter, melt it in a small saucepan over medium heat until just starting to brown, about 3 minutes. You should notice a nutty smell and bits starting to gather on the bottom. Add the 4 sage leaves to the saucepan and fry until crisp, about 45 seconds. Discard the sage leaves and set the sage-infused browned butter aside to let cool slightly.

Combine the polenta, flour, baking soda, cheese, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the egg, buttermilk and browned butter and mix until combined. Avoid overmixing to prevent air bubbles.

Spoon the mixture on top of the sage leaves and bake for 8–10 minutes or until they look like puffy clouds with a bronze lining on the outside.

These are best eaten fresh out of the oven, but are also delicious at room temperature.

Yield: 12 madeleines

Nathalie Dupree is the author of 14 cookbooks, including the James Beard award-winning “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com.