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Madeleine pans are baking pans specially designed for making madeleines, small French cakes with a classically scalloped shape. The pans can also be used to make other small shaped desserts, and while they are a specialty item, they can be quite useful. Many kitchen supply stores stock madeleine pans, often with nonstick coatings for convenience.
A madeleine pan looks like a baking sheet with a series of seashell shaped depressions punched into it. Batter for madeleines is ladled into the depressions, and during the baking process it will spread and puff up, creating a distinctive shell-shaped cake. Madeleines are often designed to be eaten like cookies, and they can be found at many formal teas and luncheons. They do not, strictly speaking, need to be shell shaped, but since this shape is traditional, it is the most common shape for madeleines.
It is believed that madeleines were named for Madeleine Palmier, who is said to have been a superb French pastry cook. Palmier apparently developed the small cakes, and the food became quite popular. The delicate little butter cakes were further popularized in the writings of Marcel Proust, a famous French author.
The batter for madeleines is essentially a sponge cake batter. As a result, the small cakes can be quite tenacious. For this reason, most bakers oil and flour their madeleine pans, to encourage the cakes to slip out once the baking process is complete. Many bakers also perfect a sharp rap to the counter to release the grip of madeleines on the pan. Modern non-stick cookware can also be used to make madeleine pans, although the batter may adhere anyway.
When selecting madeleine pans, look for sturdy pans which will stand up to some hard use. Even nonstick pans will have to be rapped to release the madeleines, so you should be able to bang the pan sharply against a counter without denting or distorting it. Some companies also make silicone madeleine pans, which are a novel solution to the sticking problem since they can be turned inside out to release the cakes. However, the madeleines may fail to develop their perfect crispy golden crust when baked in silicone, so you must decide how important that crust is to you. The pan should also be easy to wash, and ideally dishwasher safe, as the high powered jet of the dishwasher can get deep into the scallops of the pan and remove residue left from baking.