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One of the main differences between American and French food magazines, and recipes in general, is the level of detail provided in the instructions. For example, if you were to publish a recipe in America that called for a cuillère à café (coffee-spoon) of baking powder, folks would go apoplectic. “How much is a coffee spoon?”

Then there was the infamous question a copyeditor queried me about. I wrote instructions to butter a cake pan, but apparently I wasn’t clear enough.

“Do they butter the inside or the outside of the pan?”

buckwheat honey

Another difference is the laissez-faire instructions for assembly: I’ve seen French recipes for puff pastry that simply say, “Roll the pastry six times, folding it between each turn.”

But people here seem to have no problems with that and I’m not quite sure what it means.

I used to think it was because Americans don’t cook as much as the French, but if you look at the difference between the jumbo 10-pound sacks of flour at Safeway, and the 1/2-pound petits sachets at Franprix, that’s compelling evidence that American’s are still spending time in the kitchen. I also think that recipes here just assume a certain base of knowledge, that all recipes have to. Otherwise there would be a lot of butter burning in ovens across America from cake pans being buttered on the outside.

buckwheat honey

Another theory is that Americans are scared to cook. Or more specifically, to bake. I would say that’s probably vrai and the French are more forgiving when it comes to homemade tarts and cakes, probably because many know that they can’t hold themselves to the same standards as the many professional bakeries that are everywhere. So they just accept that things made at home look like where they were made, which I don’t see anything wrong with at all.

One other difference between Americans and French cooks, and the rest of the known universe, is that we love our measuring cups and spoon and it drives the rest of the world crazy when they try to cook our recipes. It took me a while to figure out why we American love our cups and spoons so much and I decided it’s because scales take a lot of the joy out of baking.

It’s not that I don’t like metrics or believe that weighing ingredients isn’t more accurate, it’s just that there’s something about dipped a measuring cup in a bin of flour and sweeping off the excess, or grasping the handle of a glass measuring cup and watching the little numbers on the side until the milk has reached just the right level, that give us a feeling of satisfaction when we’re baking.

browned butter

But I’ve had problems with recipes in some of the French food magazines, which aren’t tested by the magazines, and due to the number of failures I had, I finally gave up on them. I used to think it was me, but other people (French and otherwise) have reported similar experiences. I’d always thought maybe I’d made a mistake with the metric conversions or something, but then I realized why the exceptional and alluring food photos in those glossy magazines were all in soft-focus: they’re hiding something.

So when I came across a recipe for Buckwheat Madeleines, I forget my past failures and wanted to give it a try. Because I love madeleines. Because I love buckwheat. And because I love buckwheat honey. And because I’m an eternal optimist.

I approached the recipe with a measure of anticipation, and a soupçon of trepidation. But being eternally-optimistic, I gathered the ingredients, put together the batter, spent ten minutes cleaning my stove from all the splattering butter that had to be browned for the recipe, and let the batter chill a half-day, as instructed. Then I baked off the madeleines.


Midway during baking, I switched on the oven light—which I always forget I have for some reason, but instead of a nice hump like madeleines are supposed to have, all had a big trou in the center. Now that was a first!

(If I was more clever, or if this post got any more long-winded, I could probably work this into some post-Proustian food memory kind of thing. But I doubt future generations would be pondering me, or the meaning of my concave cakes.)

Still, I finished baking them. J’adore buckwheat but these were so rubbery, and dense, that no matter how hard I tried, I could not even break them in half. You can see how red my thumb is in the first picture from applying the pressure. I think I sprained it, actually.

I finally did break one in half, which was a two-handed effort, thinking maybe they’d still taste good. And when I took my first bite…or tried to, I could barely sink my teeth in, and I knew trouble was afoot.

bad madeleines

Nope. But each little scalloped shell tasted a giant stack of buckwheat pancakes that had passed through a hydraulic press. There is not an adjective in the food writing compendium that could describe these méchante madeleines. I’m not sure if it was me, or it if was the recipe. The blame probably lies somewhere lost in the translation, as many things around here do, including recipes.

cut open madeleine

So it’s going back into my files, perhaps to try again. Or peut-être pas. But for now, I’m still mad about these madeleines, and I’d rather be mad for them.

Related links and recipes

The Best Madeleines in Paris

Lemon, Coconut and Chocolate Madeleines (64 sq ft Kitchen)

Orange Oil Madeleines (Nami-Nami)

Madeleines (101 Cookbooks)

Lemon-Glaze Madeleines

Hazelnut, Seville Orange and Truffle Honey Madeleines (Nordljus)

Madeleines (Smitten Kitchen)

Orange & Brown Butter Madeleines (Canelle-Vanille)

Buckwheat Crêpes (Galettes au sarrasin)

Buckwheat Ice Cream (My recipe in the Los Angeles Times)



    • E

    David, thanks for sharing this! I’d always thought it was just me (American living in France since 10 years ago today), but now I know I’m not the only one to fail with French recipes. Unfortunately, not all of my American recipes work either, but most of them do. I truly enjoy reading about your non-food adventures (WTF, indeed!), and hope you continue with the mix you have so far!

    • Kristina

    Sorry about your madeleines, David. I recently followed a suspiciously long recipe from Food & Wine for a “milk chocolate” cake–and served it as cupcakes at a party. They were absolutely horrifyingly terrible!

    • Jennifer K

    Shoot, how frustrating. The ingredients sounded so tasty.

    • David

    E & Kristina: I’ve worked with a few of the American food magazines, and both had test kitchens which asked me a lot of questions and tested the recipes before publication. (Some newspapers do, and some don’t.) So usually I’ve had pretty good luck with recipes in those magazines.

    I do like the magazines here, but since it’s up to the author to provide the recipe, you need to read who the author is as that may indicate that the recipe is a keeper. Unlike this one…although I might try it again…maybe.

    • Meg

    David, I was talking with a mutual friend about this the other day – Alisa has a couple of cookbooks coming out in the fall and her publisher didn’t think it necessary to test any of the recipes. I do find it really strange! But it does explain some of the stuff that gets published…!

    Thank heavens we can always count on your recipes!

    • chika

    Hello David,

    Too bad they came out like rubber erasers… the idea of buckwheat madaleines does sound good!

    I, too, have found American recipes often more detailed than those from some other countries, even if the measurements aren’t necessarily as precise (we do metric recipes here). I’ve always secretly assumed that it was because in America you might be sued for ‘unclear’ or ‘missing’ instructions if someone tried your recipe and failed (and even worse, got injured)…

    • Julia @ Mélanger

    Wow, that just seems so odd to me. In Australia, most of the recipes in the major newspapers and magazines are tested. And ALL of the recipes in good cookbooks are tested. In fact, they pride themselves on it. In many instances, they splash across a book that the recipes have even been triple tested!! I am glad you have mentioned this though. There is a girl from Paris at my work and she made a few delicious treats recently for Bastille Day. Funnily enough, in asking her for one of her recipes (for Far Breton – her grandmother’s recipe), she emailed me through literally 1-2 lines. I shook my head a little figuring I should maybe ask for more detail? Seems there probably isn’t any more….???

    • Chess

    Hee, they look like potato chips!

    By the way, David, I just bought The Sweet Life in Paris and read the entire thing from cover to cover; it was wonderful! As an avid reader, a student of the French language, and a fellow baking enthusiast, it was all my loves at one time, and I enjoyed it immensely. I spotted a couple of errors, though, that I think your editor must have missed. Would you like me to let you know where they are, for future publications or editions, or is it too late to bother now?

    Thanks. As mentioned in a previous post, due to an editorial change, some of my final edits and changes didn’t make it into the first printing. But they’ve been amended in the second one. Glad you liked the book! -dl

    • the other Meg

    Only you could make failure so visually appealing!

    • petite anglaise

    I feel your pain.

    I remember trying various recipes from the deceptively titled ‘La Cuisine pour Tous’ manual that a well-meaning not-quite-mother-in-law kindly purchased for me. The recipes consisted of a list of ingredients and then not more than three sentences of explanation, all of which seemed to assume a wealth of prior knowledge – innate to French people perhaps…

    The result: a crème brûlé which remained stubbornly liquid, rubbery cakes which wouldn’t rise…

    • Michelle B

    And then there are just the typos with which to contend. I have discovered them both in books (Fannie Farmer) and on the net (Delia Smith), both respected recipes sources. Both recipes resulted in abject failures (it was only after, when combing through the recipes, did I identify the typos). Now, I try to best of my ability, to focus on identifying any possible typos before I actually follow the recipe.

    For my individual recipes which I give to others, I go to extremes to ensure that my success is duplicated. Once, when I was giving that kind of instruction (both verbal and written) to an Indian co-worker, she kept looking at me with doubt in her eyes. I thought at first her doubt was self-doubt, that she felt she could not pull off such demanding criteria. However, sometime later, when she happily told me that the apple pie, and especially the crust, was fantastic and that her huge, extended family adored it, she confessed she thought that I was lying to her, trying to confuse her, to convince her that I was really giving her the real recipe and not a fake one. I was amazed, why would I do that, I asked her. She replied that it was common place in her culture for good cooks to lie. It was my turn to feel confused, for she complimented and insulted me at the same time!

    After living in Europe for about 15 years, no way can I ever go back to measuring cups (in addition to my sundry and sentimental collection of broken, cracked, chipped measuring utensils, I now have a growing collection of non-functioning electronic scales). For example, Fannie Farmer lists both grams and cups needed, and the gram-oriented ones always work better than the cup-based version, from apple crumple topping to pizza dough to breads to French Onion Soup.

    I adore the cafe spoon as a unit of measurement, it makes me chortle in glee every time I come across it. Of course, I use European cafe (expresso) spoons (they might as well be considered standarized, they are all close to being the same size).

    I now consider blogging cooks to be the best source of reliable recipes.

    • Michelle B

    And yet when the French ask me for recipes, they always make it a point to emphasize they want detailed how-to instructions along with the ingredients. When I ask the French, they usually haphazardly list the ingredients (they can hardly be expected to remember them all), sketchily describe the procedure (put the stuff in the pan) and they usually with great charm add an ‘astuce’ that is so obvious (like turn on the oven), that it is painful to suppress the evil laughter building up from inside.

    • Yasmin (Almond & The Hazelnut)

    I feel the same way about some of the recipes I read here in the Philippines. Typically, the food and cooking techniques are quite straight forward, but so much of the knowledge is assumed – or just left out! There’s nothing more frustrating than a recipe that flops (well the oven I’m using here burns everything, so that’s pretty frustrating too!)… especially one you were looking so forward to!

    • Barbra

    On the bright side, at least you weren’t tempted to break your regime…

    • Kelly-Jane

    I reckon it’d be the flour. Gluten free bread here is very much like the texture of your madelines – and with a heavy mouth feel too. I’m no expert though.

    For a number of years I’ve been scared to try madelines, and macaroons (macaron) too! Although, I’ve tried the latter recently and don’t know why it too me so long – will have to bite the bullet with these little cakes sooner or later…

    • Sunny

    Question for you, David — do you bake French recipes with metric measuring devices, or do you convert them all?

    Just curious– I have two sets of cups and spoons, as well as a bi-system scale…so I just use whatever units are in the recipe….

    On another note — I inherited my grandmother’s recipe file. She was an amazing cook, and many of her specialties I learned at her side, and to my knowledge, those recipes exist only in my head. I do need to write them down, I suppose, for my sister and our respective broods.

    My gran’s recipes are a riot, though — most of them are just a list of ingredients. No measurements, no instructions, not even an oven temperature. Some I’ve learnt to replicate, others I keep because they’re her handwriting– the dishes have been a disaster. My favourite one, though, is a recipe for a very high-octane alcohol punch — written on the back of a church offering envelope.

    • Anna

    That’s strange… I think I’ve already baked those “madeleines au blé noir” (from Elle or Elle a Table, I think), and they were perfect!

    But I’ve had quite a few failures with recipes from those magazines… and some of the reportages are awfully translated from a foreign langage – usually english. I think the proof-reader, who was also the recipe-tester, got fired a few years ago!

    • Lesley

    HILARIOUS. I too have given up on French magazine recipes. I swear it’s a conspiracy.

    • Erin

    I’ve never cooked anything from a French magazine, but I have encountered my fair share of garbage recipes. Too may recipe writers take a simple, straight forward recipe and turn it into a wordy overly complicated piece of junk. I wish more recipe writers would take the time to really think about their recipe.

    • Kate

    Enjoyed your post! That was too funny… I appreciate the comparisons. I have never had the experience with a French magazine but I do know some French cooks…a different approach!

    • David

    Anna: I didn’t name this particular magazine because since I only made the recipe once, I didn’t want to implicate them since the error might have been mine. Although I do have quite a few recipes that I’ve tossed where I know the error wasn’t my fault!

    Barbra: Like the bag of choquettes I had for my goûter this afternoon? Oops….

    Michelle B: Unfortunately those do happen. Since books go through various editors (regular editor, copyeditor, production editor, etc) with 100k+ words, there’s bound to be one or two that slip through. The NYTimes had seven major errors in Walter Chronkite’s obituary recently. And you’d think out of all people, they’d of gotten his right!

    petite anglaise: Yes, I love reading those traditional recipes with their scant directions. I think they just assume a level of knowledge that we’re not used to anymore.

    Sunny: It depends. If it’s for the blog, I measure in both as I go (cups and by weight.) If making recipe just for me, like you, I use whatever the recipe calls for…here it’s always metric.

    • S. Maurya

    I get so annoyed at having to use measuring cups. I wished all cookbooks had the metric measurements in parenthesis as yours does. I get a funny satisfaction from adding up the amounts on the scale while scooping the ingredients into one container. It feels like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to AND it’s practical!

    • Nesteren

    Unbreakable Madeleines :)) Don’t stop here, please find a way to work buckwheat and madeleines work together and break free!

    • Diana

    They almost remind me of those rubber wedges that you stick under doors to prop them open. Whenever baking goes awry, I tend to hide my shame in in the waste bin and pretend that I was never even the kitchen that day.

    What do you think the issue was, perhaps too much honey or not enough leavening?

    • Mario

    I have been baking for a long time from French cooking magazines (such as Cuisine Actuelle or Guide Cuisine), and so far I have been lucky that everything has worked out for me. I remember in particular a carrot chocolate cake that was unexpected and delicious.

    However, French cookbooks are another matter. As much as I love Pierre Herme, the recipes in his edition of the Larousse des Desserts never ever work for me.

    I agree with you that French recipe writers assume that the reader has more than a basic knowledge of cooking. It also drives me crazy when they don’t tell you which pan size to use!

    I just watched “Julie & Julia” yesterday and the movie actually shows how Julia’s approach was more scientific and “American” than that of her French counterparts!

    • Valerie Catrice

    Hello David.
    When I first saw your picture of the agile madeleine on my blog update page I thought that maybe perhaps you had come up with an avant-garde recipe. I still have yet to make madeleines and I have been looking for an interesting recipe. Maybe not quite This interesting. :)

    Thank you for sharing. It is nice to know that even the professionals can mess up from time to time. And your observation about the French being rather aloof in their descriptions of recipe steps and measurements is spot on. When my father moved to America ( from France ) he said he felt that the American cookbooks were a bit insulting in their ‘condescending’ detailed layout. I think his literal words were ‘c’est casse pied!” Unfortunately I have lived here so long now and have been homogenized and I too am addicted to using cups and spoons. Hopefully I will get to the point where I can just eyeball the amount of ingredients needed. Till then I’ll have to live with my father’s voice in my head clucking at me in the way only the French can do and saying ” Mais qu’est ce que tu fait avec sa”? :)

    • Paula

    We have the same issue in Brazil with our magazines – some of them have the guts to photograph store-bought cookies to publish with the recipe! I agree american recipes can be overdetailed sometimes, but I still rather have too much information than flip coins to decide what to do next!

    • Laura

    Hi David,

    It’s Monday morning in NYC and your wonderful post (with the usual wit and candor) was fun to read. Wow! Those poor things look…well, they look like a lowfat version of the famous Madelienes. You know…a Snackwell’s version, lol.

    A year ago RLB’s books introduced me to weighing ingredients instead of using volume. It never occurred to me that many of the cups and spoons we use are not accurate measures to begin with, as they can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. I decided to take the plunge and weigh ingredients – and halfway through the recipe I decided to never look back. I am a convert and can’t believe I hadn’t learned about it earlier. I especially love that there are less dishes involved when baking by weight.

    *sigh* Gotta go work. Be well. Laura

    • Irina @ PastryPal

    You’re making me blush a little because the recipes I post have an absurd amount of detail, but still, that is the point, to teach and be foolproof. Thanks for posting these feeble madeleines. Even if it’s not a recipe for making, it’s one for laughing about.

    • Laura [What I Like]

    wow, what sad little madeleines! It is a testament to your photographic talent that I’m enjoying the pictures though. Agreed, American are often terrified of cooking, or consider it more of a procedure rather than a process perhaps? I have a few british cookbooks which quote quantities in weight and I have to say that I LOVE them. So much easier, and way less mess.

    • Roberta

    Oh, David, your madeleines look so despondent! The first time I ever made madeleines I was so thrilled that they turned out correctly – in fact, I think I will make some more right now – and I used the oldest book in my kitchen, the Fannie Farmer cook book. But if I should be using coffee spoons; well, good luck there, because I made it, ahem, a point to steal a coffee spoon from each European city I’ve visited (five).

    Thank you for a wonderful blog (the rooftop restaurant photos were amazing) and the new book is fabulous!

    • Michael Natkin

    That’s hilarious… those do look truly awful. And I have to think that a buckwheat madeleine wouldn’t exactly be rocket science. I’d probably start with a standard madeleine recipe and substitute about 20% buckwheat flour – it has a strong enough flavor that you probably don’t need any more than that. Anyhow, I think the reason that French magazines would give minimal directions and not test the recipes is the same reason that French ski slopes don’t mark the obstacles, while American ones are guarded six ways from Sunday. The French attitude is much more “deal with it” – soar or maybe find yourself in a crevasse, but you are on your own. Which is kind of funny because the American self-image is of being self-reliant, but the reality is we want padded bumpers.

    I struggle with this all the time in the recipes I write on Herbivoracious. Can I assume people know how to knead dough? To cut butter into flour? To know when their saute pan is hot enough? To taste and adjust seasoning? Or do I need to spell out all of those details?

    • Sasha

    David, do you know of a good resource for converting ingredient amounts given in cups to grams or liters? Thanks!

    • Hilary

    Thank you for posting this. It’s nice to know that even professionals have trouble with recipes every now and then!

    • David

    Sasha: I did an article on making recipes metric and list a few converters to check out.

    Hilary & Valerie: Well, at least it wasn’t my recipe!

    Michael: The nice thing about a blog is that if something is unclear, readers can contact you about it. btw: I don’t think the French ski slopes list the obstacles because they have nationalized health care~!

    Irina: I think it’s ok to have a decent amount of detail, but very long recipes scare people away. The trick is to have just enough, and economize words by choosing ones that convey what you’re trying to say without overdoing it.

    Diana: Doorstops? I love it ; )

    • Anna

    As a Brit living in the states I have always found the cup system a complete nightmare! When I started my blog I only used metric and ounces but I had so many complaints by American readers who did not own a set of scales- so now I test in both- which makes me quite nervous because cups seem to have so many variables! PS I only just noticed your category labeled as ‘whining’ genious….I think every blogger should have a whining category.

    • Amy Prevot

    OMG!!! I too thought it was just me, but I can never get French recipes to work either! I find the proportions are usually way off or they leave a crucial ingredient or step out of the recipe. I feel so much better knowing I’m not alone!!! Thank you!

    • nbm

    I can’t stand when recipes get needlessly specific about equipment. “Using a small paring knife, cut the orange peel into quarter-inch dice.” “Break the eggs into a small bowl; beat lightly with a fork.” What difference does it make what size knife or bowl, or what I beat them with? I’m unlikely to use a cat o’ nine tails. If I transcribe such a recipe I write: “Dice peel.” “Beat eggs.” But if people truly can’t be trusted to know to butter the INside of pans, perhaps they will be flummoxed if you don’t specifically tell them which tool to use to mix up eggs.

    (That’s different of course from specifying the right size of cake pan, or other relevant details.)

    • Rebekka

    Well, at least you can say you sprained your thumb on a madeleine. That’s pretty cool.

    • lee

    David, did you use your aluminum free baking soda? I don’t see that giving much leavening after sitting in the refrigerator so long. It tastes so much better, but I really see the difference if I get the cakes in the oven right away than if I have to delay.

    This reminds me of a story about my grandmother as a young house wife making rubbery homemade noodles. She never did figure out how she did that, but said she wished she could have, so she could have sold the recipe to Goodyear.

    • Sally

    Such sad little things. Usually when a recipe fails I assume it was me or figure that it didn’t actually fail but I just don’t like the taste. My dog actually prefers those recipes as he gets to finish them off.

    I actually started reading Proust this summer as a protest against Twitter. It was the densest, yet readable novel I could think of. Made it through “Swan’s Way” and half of the next volume. Actually, the first part of “Swan’s Way” is quite stunning. Maybe if I made some madeleines, I could make it through the rest of it.

    • David

    lee: The recipe actually said, “The heat shock will puff up the madeleines, leavening is inutile (unnecessary).” But I did re-read that line, just to make sure.

    nbm: I’ve stared specifying bowl sizes because sometimes folks don’t read the recipe through first (gulp!) and they don’t need a large bowl if they’re mixing 2 egg yolks to add to something else. But it is helpful to know that you should use a large bowl if you’re going to mix those two egg yolks with the subsequent addition of a few quarts of milk, some sugar, etc…

    • Nicole

    The idea of buckwheat madeleines has me drooling all over my keyboard, it’s unfortunate that they did not turn out.

    And I think the idea of recipe measurements that aren’t completely concrete make Americans feel uneasy. During my attempt to bake in Greece, I wasn’t entirely sure of what to do with myself when a cup wasn’t really a cup (or the American conception of a cup, at least).

    • Risamay

    Quelle dommage. I’ve never tried to bake from a French recipe, but I suppose I’m just as bad, in that I love to bake but frequently veer from tried and true recipes in a misguided effort to perfect them (like I know what I’m doing) and make them my own. Sometimes the results are fantastique, and other times not. Mostly because I never write what I do down, and can never remember how I arrived at my experimental successes. Oh well. C’est la vie.

    J’adore les madeleines, aussi. I’ll never forget my introduction to their buttery goodness: Say Cheese! on Solano Avenue in Berkeley (which, alas, is long gone). My mother, a français and espagnol teacher, lived in Paris for a time before marriage and children, and instilled in us kids a love of edible European delights. Madeleines were probablement at the top of le list.

    And while we’re on the topic of these classic cakey cookies, why is it that the madeleines from La Farine are so sub par? I just don’t get it. So for madeleines in Berkeley-Oakland, I rely on Donsuemor from my local Trader Joe’s. They’re not bakery-fresh, but they’re pretty damn delicious all the same.

    • Meghan Porter

    Loved this post, but it’s too bad the recipe didn’t work out although buckwheat madeleines do sound very tempting. Oh yes how we Americans do love all our measuring cups and spoons! At first I was confused about the title but now I see that the word “the” entirely changes the meaning! Have you thought about creating a poll for your readers? I find them useful and also fun for voting!

    • Stephanie

    I just saw Julie and Julia. This post makes me appreciate all the more the eight or so years of meticulous work Julia put in testing and translating the recipes for her American audience.

    • Anne

    What a relief for us amateur cooks. You are mortal!

    • Anne

    What a relief for us amateur cooks. You are mortal!

    • krysalia

    Ooh, tiny flip flop soles :)
    how cute :D.

    Everyone said it, that’s hilarious, as usual ♥.

    About the flour, I think about something : I know there is different kind of buckweat flours, at least in my organic store, they carry some different brands for different uses, grounded differently, complete or not etc. maybe the one you bought isn’t the same than the one in the magazine ?
    (I say this because I had problems with some farine d’épeautre once, one brand was for making bread, and the other wasn’t. Guess how I noticed the difference ?)

    • ritanyc

    “But these Madeleines are all that a Madeleine should be: Tender little cakes with the fine, flavor of soft French flour and bronzed with a butter crust.”

    This is a quote from David’s blog on “The Best Madeleines in Paris”. And I’ve been thinking about the fuss about making M’s differently. I understand the desire to
    experiment, but these darn cookies have been around for a long time for a good reason. And if I indulge in one I think I’d like it to be the way Proust had it.

    Sorry to tip the apple cart on that one!

    • BarbF

    I agree with Risamay (I’m a fellow Oak-lander, live just a couple of blocks from the Fruitvale La Farine — I was here first :-)). I hate to say it, but I like the Donsuemor madeleines better than any I’ve tried to make myself, and I went to pastry school! I like the soft crunch on the outside, and the body they have. But this article has inspired me to go back to David’s 2007 recipe for David’s Lemon-Glazed Madeleines & give i another shot.

    Thanks for sharing the failures as well as the successes, D.

    PS: Julie & Julia is an absolute winner — go see it if you haven’t! I want to make Bœuf Bourguignon too!!

    • Emily

    Thanks for showing us that even you have these kinds of experiences.

    After reading about your french magazines, I remembered my husband’s family cookbook which is maddening in its omissions (“combine first 5 ingredients by usual method”). Traditional understandings are frequently left out.

    All the recipes are signed and my favorite contributor by far is Ellen who offers a recipe for “A Good Pickle for Hams: One ounce of salt petre, one pint of salt, half pint of molasses to each ham; pour your salt petre into the molasses and rub your hams in it, then put your hams into a sweet cask put your salt into water enough to cover your hams, turn it on to them and turn them often for six weeks. If the hams are large, add more salt then smoke them ten days. Beef for drying done in the same way, also beef tongues.” I’m left wondering what kind of hams she’s talking about.

    Ellen also gave a recipe for “Castor Oil Made Palatable: Boil castor oil a few minutes in an equal quantity of milk, and sweeten it. When cooked, stir it well, and the taste of it is remarkably pleasant.”

    • CakeSpy

    This made me laugh out loud. I do love how these ones look like little madeleine chips–though it doesn’t sound like they were crisp! :-)

    • Wizzythestick

    Americans are guilty of this inexactitude when they call for a stick of butter in a recipe. Here butter is sold in blocks so if anyone can enlighten me, how much is a stick of butter?

    One stick of butter is 4 ounces, or 115 grams. I don’t use ‘sticks of butter’ in recipes currently, but to some publishers and newspapers, that’s house style. In America and in France, butter blocks are normally marked on the packaging where to cut them. It is an odd measurement, which is why I never liked using it. -dl

    • Kathy

    The madeleines look awful! They sounded so delish and tempting (browned butter and all).

    I once tried a cranberry white cake from Sunset magazine and it turned out to be one of those bad recipes that I will never ever try again. Live and learn.

    • Susan

    Madelines sound too much like genoise for me to try them at this time. I attempted my first genoise so I could use it for a Boston Cream Pie for my birthday last month. I failed. Dismally. It all fell apart trying to fold in the butter..and I had even mixed it with some batter. It looked just like your pitiful little madelines here when the oven got through with it. It tasted good, but it was a frisbe. One day, when it’s not so darn hot, I’ll try it again, then maybe try the madelines as I already have a couple of pans. If you can fail at this..where the heck to I get the nerve to try? kidding!

    • joyciel

    Please tell me that butter question is made up. Outside the pan? Wow…

    And that cup thing is soooooooooooo true! I ranted about that before. Alton Brown (his cooking show is pretty much the only one I watch anymore) had a recipe for coconut macaroons and he usually uses weight for baking and there were so many comments on the site saying things like “Who does he think he is? We’re not all professional bakers! We just want to make a cookie!” And a few other people accused him of being too European. It’s not even like the measurements were in kilograms, he still used ounces and stuff.

    That pissed me off.

    • Jennifer

    When I first had a kitchen and someone to cook for in France (after about a year and a half of living here as a student and a language assistant,) I took to buying that little cooking magazine “Vie Pratique Gourmande” that they sell in Monoprix. It was really helpful on and off for a year – it taught me more about measurements in kilos, average prices to expect for certain products, and new products available.

    However, as time went by and I actually tried some of the recipes, I noticed more and more that they were a bit strange and often sounded somewhat like hacked last-minute editorial jobs.

    The last straw was a recipe so banal I couldn’t believe it made the cut for a food magazine: “asperges aux cornflakes,” I haven’t bought the magazine since!

    • David

    Jennifer: That asparagus dish, with cornflakes, sounds suspiciously like something dreamed up by the same person who came up with the recipe for the Chocolate Hamburger

    • Velops

    I think French publications tend to be vague because the contributors tend to rely on experience and don’t actually measure. Details like whether or not to add more liquid to a batter to achieve the correct consistency are subjective and tend to be an afterthought during the process.

    • Ana

    Don’t you hate when this happens? Oh man, if it is something I have high expectation of I get very frustrated and sometimes even sad when my recipes go the wrong directions… sorry about your buckwheat loss.
    Funny when you mentioned the French recipe methods, in Brazil the explanations are also a lot simpler and less detailed than here int he US. A recipe for simple cake in Brazil right after you have all the ingredients mixed usually reads like this: ” Greased pan, preheated oven, bake until golden”. Now I believe people are getting the “American” way of details but the basic notions are expected to be know by most!
    By following your blog for a while now I guess there are lots of similarities between the way of life of French and Brazilians!

    • Cecile

    Hello David,

    I just read your article about “failed” Madeleines. Too bad!

    But to me it looks like buckwheat is maybe a little heavy for this job, no? Sometimes the choice of the flour is vital for a baking recipe and maybe this time it was.

    Anyway I have not baked Madeleines yet and I am with you with all my heart when a nice pictured recipe doesn’t work because of God knows what. On the other hand, I think the French people have their cultural ways to do things, like we do. We just have to listen and watch carefully what their expressions mean. I have for my part bought a long time ago all the instruments needed to function properly with european cooking. So this way everything is much simpler and for the rest of it, I try using my judgment and my experience as a lover of fine cuisine. I love to cook and French cuisine is one of the best, isn’t that right?

    So maybe if you compare a basic Madeleines recipe with your buckwheat one you will find a clue! Good luck!

    Have a good day!

    • David

    Velops: My point exactly. I just wonder why recipes in America are the direct opposite? After all, we have a pretty fine baking tradition as well, so I always wonder why everything has to be spelled out precisely in US recipes, but not so in the French ones?

    Cecile: At the end of the recipe, it said if you want a madeleine that is less “coarse” (corsé) and less “tight” (serrée), use half white flour. Unfortunately I think it’d take more than 50% white flour to raise these little devils to the heights they should be.

    Once my jaw recovers from chewing these, I’ll probably try them again and report back…

    • Pink Sky

    That is frustrating. I don’t know that I could bring myself to try that recipe one more time, if you do you are definitely a more patient person than I am for sure.

    I finally did get my hands on your Sweet Life In Paris book, which I am reading as slowly as possible because I am enjoying it so very much. It reminds me of my visits to Paris and makes me laugh and reminisce. I am doing what I can to make the book last and to savor it as much as possible. I can’t wait to try the recipes.

    • Sasha

    David, the link to your article on converting recipes to metric took me to a blog with one of your delicious ice cream recipes. However, I did a search on Google and found your article (result #1) so thank you! I’m just letting you in case you want to correct the link.

    • Max

    Personally, I’ve love Madeleines, but never tried making them. My wife is a pastry chef and she agreed with Cecile’s comment that buckwheat may just be a little too heavy for it. Also, she said that it’s important to use copper.

    • Winnie

    Oh, bummer.
    My daughter Madeline just loves madelines- too bad these did not work out…
    Reminds me to try these at home soon….sans buckwheat, though.

    • Dan

    It does get confusing from one place to another in particular – here in Argentina a “cucharita de te”, or “tea spoon” – is roughly the same as what we would think of as a teaspoon, but a “cucharita de cafe”, or “coffee spoon”, is a demistasse spoon – about 1/4 of a teaspoon. And they have two “cups” – a “taza” and a “pocillo” – respectively, a “cup for tea” and a “cup for coffee” – roughly 190cc and 90cc. A “stick of butter” would send them over the edge here since it only comes in blocks of 100, 200, or 500 grams. I do have to admit, that much as I tend to cook thinking in casual terms, when it comes to reading or writing a written recipe, I like metric weights and measures….

    • krysalia

    david said : “Velops: My point exactly. I just wonder why recipes in America are the direct opposite? After all, we have a pretty fine baking tradition as well, so I always wonder why everything has to be spelled out precisely in US recipes, but not so in the French ones? ”

    The main and huge difference I see between US publications and France publications is about the responsability felt by the author/publisher, and how customers point their finger or not, on them.

    In france, if one recipe gives some deceiving results, the person who tried to cook it will probably think that this is his own fault : “Je n’y arrive pas, je suis nul” instead of “cette recette craint“.

    In US, it seems that people will dare more often to ask an author about details and complain that something went wrong, at least US authors seem to be afraid of that, way more than french ones :D.

    I’m always amazed and admirative when I see US chefs (you included) reacting promptly on their blogs to any question about their recipes, trying to make everything clear, and feeling that their own responsability is engaged when some people do not understand or need details. It seems that US chefs think that it’s not professional to answer only partially, or worse, not to answer at all.

    I’m a foodie since a long time (online and IRL), and I must say that I never saw such level of commitment from a french author (exept from great professional chefs). Of course they feel some responsability but not to this point, they do not consider things the same way. Here both authors and readers agree on the fact that the author is an important person who is probably right => the author do not feel the urge to verify and to test everything.

    Oh, it makes me remember something even worse : the famous TV chef Eric Solal made once a big coup de gueule during the emission paroles d’experts. He presented to the camera a paper magasine that was showing a nice slice of gorgeous three chocolates tart, beautifully photographed with swirls on the top, and with a recipe added on the same page. The problem? He knew pretty well this tart because he designed it, that was one of his special commissioned creations, shown in his own book :/….

    The recipe written under the picture was barely trying to get some matching results with the picture, but it would have been probably a total failure for whoever would have baked it. Solal explained that his editor sold all the pictures from all books to a stock-pictures society for illustration purposes. I’m not sure to remember well but I think he said then that he asked the magasine, and was answered : “pictures were not copyrighted anymore, this is legal and that’s how we work. Nobody cares, you know”…

    • Accidental Parisian

    I’m sorry I’ve joined this discussion late because I’ve been pondering and writing about the same topic, and have come to a few foody conclusions:

    – French cooking magazines are aimed at experienced cooks who want to really push the boat out on a special occasion.They’re not meant to be pedagogical. (Unlike, say, BBC Good Food).
    – Learning to cook French cuisine is based on perfecting classic dishes and mastering techniques. It’s not all about innovation, creativity and novelty. (Compare to the Jamie Oliver approach that is so accessible and encouraging).
    – As noted above, there isn’t a culture of constructive complaining in France. There’s also a certain wearied acceptance that you will get poor teaching/customer service/directions. What’d you expect?
    – A lot of young French people (i.e. under 35) are not learning to cook like their grandmothers. There’s this myth that most French people are great cooks. Appreciating great food is not the same as preparing it, and it seems a lot of people conclude that food is best left to the experts.

    • Risamay

    BarbF: Hey neighbor! When you have that batch of David’s citron glazed version prêt à manger, I’d love to rendez-vous for a tasting. Being that you went to pastry school and I didn’t, your batch is sure to be better than mine. Plus I don’t own madeleine molds, at the moment.

    • cakebrain

    Ahh. too bad. It seems as if that plate of buckwheat madeleines look like they’re sticking their tongues out at you, as if to say, “nyah, nyah, nyah”. I hate it when a recipe disappoints. I love madeleines too and you must persevere, eh? I’m that way with canneles and macarons too. Go have a bowl of soba noodles. It’ll help you feel better.

    • Wizzythestick

    Thanks for the clarification on the butter measurement. I appreciate it:-)

    • Craig

    I feel exactly the opposite. I love baking with a scale and bake more than when I didn’t have one. I hate fooling with cups and cleaning them up. That is one reason why I love your recipes–you give weights–although, I have to wonder why you don’t for liquids? Don’t you just put in 232g of cream while the bowl is on the scale instead of getting out a cup measure and having something else to clean?

    • Rachel

    Quel dommage! I can appreciate your not wanting to name the source of the recipe, but I will say this (echoing Anna above): if it is from Elle a table, I tried them and they came out perfectly (indeed, some of the best madeleines I’ve ever made). So I wouldn’t give up just yet!

    • Cookin’ Canuck

    There’s nothing more disappointing than having your heart set on a particular kind of food and spending the time to make it only to have the whole thing flop. Here’s hoping the next attempt goes your way.

    • David

    Craig: That seems to be the way the British measure things in recipes; weight for solids and volume for liquids. And they do that in France, too.

    Rachel & Anna: Yes, I will try them again. I was just miffed that I used up some of the special buckwheat flour a friend from Brittany gave me for these. Once I have 5 extra egg whites lying around (which shouldn’t be too far away) I will re-make them. Perhaps I made an error with the conversion, and maybe I’ll just re-present the recipe in metrics and let readers have a go at it : 0

    Accidental Parisian: Interestingly, the young woman who makes crêpes at my market was telling me that a friend asked her to tell her how to make zucchini soup. She was shocked when she told her to cook everything in a pot then purée it. She couldn’t believe that someone needed a recipe for that.

    • Jérôme

    You should never trust french when they’re supposed to give you a recipe. You should even more never trust a journalist. A recipe is a well kept secret. Every french recipe is elusive. For the madeleine, if you want to get the “nipple effect” (in french “tétonner”) you should cook your madeleines half the time with a very hot temperature, half the time with a much lower temperature. This is the “secret”. They should have great tits (sorry). Ah ! Les madeleines ! Tellement proustiennes !

    Thank you for your amazing work. Reading your writing is a delightful !


    • Jackie at PhamFatale

    I’m sorry to hear you’re mad at your méchantes madeleines. It might be the metrics or the recipe itself. I agree with Jérôme. A lot of French cooks don’t share their recipe and guard their cooking secrets like they are a matter of national security, but I’m a believer that knowledge is meant to be shared. A few years ago, when I was still living in Paris, I found out the secret for making light, airy madeleines with the characteristic bump through a contact of mine that is friends with one the most famous patissiers in Paris. Check out my post at

    • Rob (NZ)

    Re the veracity or otherwise of French cookbooks : do read Colette Rossant’s “Madeleines in Manhattan” (sequel to “Apricots on the Nile” & “Return to Paris”, her memoirs) – the chapter on her experiences as interpreter for a French chef, & how he totally upset Julia Child….

    • Debby in DC

    made me laugh right out loud. hockey puck madeleines…..but then your whole Paris book made me laugh, regularly, but not because the recipes failed. Reminds me of the two equally disastrous tries I made a croissants, from which I learned humility indeed.

    • susan in irvine :)

    I love madeleines! Never had a buckwheat one before. I just ordered your book and am so excited for it to come in!

    • Joumana

    I love your writing, it is witty and entertaining. I spent 6 weeks this summer in Beirut looking for measuring cups, to no avail. Finally I found a set at an upscale mall, in rubber, for $45 (US). As far as the French instructions, I have given up on trying to follow a French magazine. It is une question de culture, les Gaulois sont profondement royalistes et n’aiment pas partager leurs secrets, culinaires ou autres avec les ” manants” (leurs lecteurs).

    • Bernard

    I am a French who has lived in the US for 15 years and I got used to the cups and spoons. I now have a nice scale for the French recipes but in France most people do not use a scale. Instead they use a measuring cup (called a Verutile) with has weight indications for different ingredients (flour, sugar, etc).

    My wife (who is Swedish) is amazed at the vagueness of the French recipes. For example, how much salt is in a pinch (une pincee de sel), or what is the temperature of a “good oven” (faire cuire dans un “bon four”). It is true that many French recipes are hard to reproduce and the internet is not helping (I found 2 “genuine” recipes for the same dish, one with 6 eggs and one without any eggs).

    On the flip side, American recipe often don’t have enough accuracy due to the lack of flexibility in the cup and spoon method: did you ever see 1/cup + 2 tablespoons + 1/2 teaspoon of anything in a recipe?

    Finally, let’s not forget the other variables that are generally ignored in books and magazines – French or American: the ingredients (flour, butter, cream have huge variability from one place to the other), the weather (especially humidity) and the oven. I am painfully adjusting all my recipes to a convection oven.

    • Maryann

    Well, despite them being inedible, your madeleines look incredibly beautiful!

    I am always so disappointed when I try a recipe that turns out a complete failure! But stuff happens =D

    I was so intrigued with the recipe, and I love madeleines, so I decided to google a recipe for buckwheat madeleines and found one pretty good looking recipe for buckwheat and almond meal madeleines. So I decided I must try it! Hopefully they come out, but I have to convert from metric first lol!

    • Lex

    I notice the dessert spoon of (blank) in the Moro and River Cafe cookbooks all the time and also other European mags/books. At work we do the same sort of thing without question. Maybe it is a also an San Francisco thing, or maybe because all of us line cooks have to make pastries once in awhile. A dessert spoon is SO much easier for me, than digging out the tablespoon. Also looking forward to seeing you at Omnivore books!

    • david

    Lex: Interestingly, Wikipedia (France) does list measurements for cuillère à soupe and cuillère à café and their conversions. It’s pretty complicated (4,929ml anybody?)..yes, am looking forward to the event at Omnivore books.

    Jackie: Yes, in my madeleine recipe in The Sweet Life in Paris, I freeze the madeleine pans and the batter. Using baking powder isn’t traditional, but I also advise people can add it for a bit of extra ‘boost.’

    Bernard: Ha! It drives me nuts when people call for “1 cup water, minus 1 teaspoon.” Considering the variations in measuring cups, I can’t see how it matters all that much. Some French friends have corrected me when I say “pincée”, telling me that you’d say “point” du sel. But I’ve usually since it denoted as a “pinch.”

    Joumana: $45? I’m sure a reader here would’ve been happy to cut your losses and send you a set for half that price ; )

    • krysalia

    (definitely the nit picker – sorry)

    I think you were right with “une pincée“, David. This is two different things, the french language for recipes, and the french language discribing the taste of the dish.

    Traditionnaly, french say “une pincée de sel” in recipes, because of the gesture of course : salt was kept in “salt hand” : une main à sel, a sort of vase opened on the side instead of on the top. Une poignée de gros sel, une pincée de sel fin => all hand related. It’s a way to describe on the same time one quantity, and the gesture to measure it.

    “Une pointe” as a way to measure in a recipe, is coming from “une pointe de couteau”, and is usually reserved to talk about spices. they were kept in small jars and taken with the edge of the knife. “Une pointe” is a more accurate saying to measure spices than for salt, since it’s slightly less than a pinch, reserved for stronger flavors.

    Then, “une pointe“, talking about salt, is when someone talks about the taste of the dish he’s preparing : having a taste, he says : “hmmm… ça manque d’une pointe de sel“. This is pretty different : this time, “une pointe” doesn’t describe a defined quantity, it’s a way to say that the dish could have slightly more salt.
    But the cook could say this and add two or three pinches, or only a real point, whatever is needed to get that slightly more salty taste. For example, a french cook could taste a spoon of soup made in a giant pot (200liters), and say that it lacks a “point of salt” : let’s not to say that adding only a point of salt would not make any difference in a pot of that size => he was just describing the taste, and will probably add 2 or three spoons of salt to change it, still refering this as “une pointe” .

    Anyway, that’s the usual or general uses of those words, but you’ll always find someone who’ll say that he never heard about it and that in his region, other words are employed. that’s french language beautifull richness I think.

    • starman1695

    Love the “butter” question. I don’t think I’ll ever be dining at his place.

    • deensiebat

    I once figured I could freestyle some buckwheat waffles, and substituted buckwheat flour for over half the flour in my standard recipe. This was before I knew about the lack of gluten. The result was basically toasted goo. Your sunken madeleines look lovely in comparison.

    • Axelle the french reader

    I LOVED your madeleines, david. It makes me laugh a lot. But I had problemes too, with madeleines. Even being french ! And you know what ?… I buy french recipes magazines … but just because of those wonderful pictures who make me hungry … I have never tried those recipes. All my recipes come from my family or my friends…
    Keep on trying, you’ll succeed, I’m sure !

    • Marc @ NoRecipes

    Great post! Love the humility in posting a dish that didn’t go quite as planned, I think many of us would have just swept it under a virtual rug and pretended it never happened. The Madeleines remind me of a Dalí painting.

    • j.cro

    Hi David,
    I love this post. I read it last week and meant to comment but I forgot… Did the recipe call for xantham gum? I’m just curious – that’s generally a standard in gluten-free baking and I’m wondering if was left out?

    Anyway, I love your blog and photos and Twitter updates.
    Keep it coming!


    • Margie

    I hate to bake a new recipe and discover that it has failed me. I always blame the food. I never blame myself.

    Buckwheat in a cookie? Wow! Keep us posted if you find success with this item. Try not to give up on this item too quickly. I think you may be on to something. :)

    • Laurence

    I don’t know how much of Portuguese you can assimilate (I use google translate for this) but this blog–Madalenas, simply screams *food porn*. If you go down the page, you’ll see a recipe for madeleines (madalenas) that looks delicious.

    As for me, I am simply not game to cook with grams. So i postponed the European cooking for now. But i guess it could be time for me to buy a scale and to rock it!

    • The Teacher Cooks

    Being a food’s teacher for 30 years I can tell you that I have heard, ” Do you mean butter the inside or the outside of the pan?’ I just had to laugh. I have found out first hand that you have to experience cooking in order to know what to do. It was a great post.


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