Cooking schools, restaurants and other food-related endeavors have kept Lori Forrest in the kitchen for decades.

Cooking schools, restaurants and other food-related endeavors have kept Lori Forrest in the kitchen for decades.

While pastries, natural foods and all manner of ethnic cuisines came easily to Forrest, one particular bit of baking eluded her for 20 years. Now master of the Madeleine, Forrest has a new business on her hands.

"A lot of people are always asking me 'What's a Madeleine?' " Forrest says.

"A lot of people ... take a bite, and go 'I remember my childhood.' "

Customers may associate the tea cakes with their iconic description in Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." For others, plastic packages at Starbuck's coffee shops provided their first brush with Madeleines. Whether singularly symbolic or mass-produced, the shell-shaped, spongy cookie appeals to a wide audience, Forrest says.

Madeleines recently received the thumbs-up from Forrest's 14-year-old son, Cameron, and his teenage friends. Lacking the ingredients for a batch of chocolate-chip cookies, Forrest, 58, whipped up some Madeleines with a specialty pan that had lain unused among her cookware since 1989.

Dissecting a French recipe that had previously seemed too complicated was the first step to success.

"There's a lot of things about Madeleines that really discourage people," the Ashland resident says.

"There's so many Madeleine pans unused in this country."

Forrest's is no longer among them. If teenagers liked Madeleines so much, Forrest thought, so would her friend, who accompanied her on a trip to Paris, where she bought the distinctive pan. To make the Madeleines extra-special for her friend's January birthday, Forrest added cocoa powder and toasted hazelnuts to the basic recipe, along with toasted pistachios to a second batch. She packaged the two new versions, along with the traditional, powdered sugar-dusted Madeleines in a tin.

"I kind of hit on a good combination," Forrest says.

After Forrest's friend passed the cakes around at a party, she called to order four more tins of Madeleines for California clients. Soon, Forrest was looking for a commercial bakery to crank out 150 Madeleines a day. She takes over Ashland's Four and Twenty Blackbirds in the bakery's off hours.

"I guess these things are marketable," Forrest says, adding that she realized no one else was selling a comparable product locally.

Stocked at Shop 'N' Kart, Ashland Food Co-op, Market of Choice and local coffee shops, the Madeleines are priced at about 75 cents apiece or about $2 for a pack of all three flavors. Although Madeleines freeze well for about six months, they last approximately two weeks once packaged.

Other commercial Madeleines are unleavened and purposely underbaked, Forrest says, to extend their shelf life. Unlike Forrest's, those ones lack the humps characteristic of a true French Madeleine, which usually tout their protuberances in place of their patterns.

"In France, they all have humps, and nobody shows them shell-side up because the hump's the more interesting part," Forrest says.

The humps are achieved through the interaction of cold batter in a 400-degree convection oven, Forrest says. A metal Madeleine pan is key, she adds, because silicone pans produce shiny cakes that don't brown properly.

Although Madeleines are within reach of the home cook, heavy-duty equipment like a KitchenAid mixer is necessary, Forrest says. The recipe calls for just five ingredients — butter, flour, sugar, eggs and lemon zest — but it's the precise manipulation of those components that yields a proper Madeleine, she says. Freshness of the eggs affects the outcome. The butter is best when clarified. And the dough should rest for 24 hours.

Those few tips notwithstanding, Forrest isn't giving away her secret recipe. But she is selling Madeleines by the dozen, expanding her business to the Internet this month. See the Web site www.lorismadeleines.com, e-mail info@lorismadeleines.com or call 531-7007 for more information.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.