I grew up with nonnettes although I don’t recall that we ever had the “real” thing: my mom had four kids to feed and every single one of us loved nonnettes, so she bought the less expensive oblong ones that came in brightly colored cardboard boxes (to this day, I remember the glistening marmalade heart of the half-eaten one pictured on the lid). But even those were more money that our usual after-school snack of bread and chocolate (I know, we French kids had it rough!), so they were a rare treat.
As it happens, I forgot all about them for decades but last year, while in France, we stopped at an organic grocery store to buy some bread and as I was browsing the aisles leading to the bakery, I saw on a shelf a package of handcrafted-looking nonnettes that looked particularly appealing. I bought it and, believe me when I say this – as a person who famously doesn’t really like sweets – I had a moment that was better than Proustian.
While Proust’s Narrator recognizes the exact taste of the tea-dunked madeleine he knew in his childhood and embarks on a quest for Time lost, these nonnettes were so much more than the ones I knew growing up that I felt no longing for an elusive past, just a fierce determination not to part with the treat again. Since I couldn’t very well go back to Biocoop and buy a truckload to ship home, I resolved to do the next best thing, which is find a recipe and make them myself.
But first I should probably explain that nonnettes (literally “little nuns”) are small gingerbread cakes that nuns used to make in the Middle Ages. Although the better-known ones come from Dijon in Burgundy (the nonnettes have nothing to do with mustard, by the way), I believe they are to be found in other regions of France as well. The oblong ones I knew were domed and lightly glazed and the best part of eating them was sinking your teeth into the glaze and feeling the dome collapse over the marmalade heart. I am telling you, there is no way Proust topped that with his (most likely soggy) madeleine.
If you google “nonnettes de Dijon images,” you’ll see several different variations. The little cakes are indeed often glazed and some are domed. The ones I bought last year were thick, round, flat and unglazed. I personally like the domed ones although I can do flat too and I prefer unglazed. They keep better.
Apparently I can also do hollow, albeit certainly not on purpose!
I asked baker and pastry chef Leslie Mackie, owner of Macrina Bakery in Seattle, why I was getting collapsed centers. She thought it had to do with the leavening and suggested I try using half baking powder half baking soda instead of all baking soda. She also recommended enclosing the marmalade inside the batter instead of putting it on top. So that’s what I did and it worked! Thank you, Leslie!
But before I even attempted to bake nonnettes, I browsed through the many recipes online. My favorite one is this one, by blogger Edda Onorato. Edda’s blog, Un déjeuner de soleil, is a feast for the eyes and I have known it to do a number on my tastebuds too. So I tend to trust her and I wasn’t disappointed. Her recipe is solid.
I did adapt it a bit:
- By changing the leavening (as explained above). Edda says that in the very old days, nonnettes were made with levain (which might have been the only leavening agent readily available to the nuns). The little cakes must have had a very different texture then and a different bite. I am not sure I would like them that way but I might give it a shot one day out of curiosity because after all, these nuns knew a thing or two
- By using all whole-grain flours. I don’t know much about the history of the nonnettes but, if I were the gambling kind, I’d be willing to bet that, in the Middle Ages, the nuns didn’t go for white flour. Taste and texture are spot on with the whole-grain and then there is the satisfaction of knowing that the cakes are more nutritious. I have only used white whole wheat so far but next time I’ll use some of the Sonora wheat I bought from Nan Kohler in Los Angeles. That flour is so aromatic that it will probably bring a whole new dimension to the cake
- By lowering the amount of sugar a bit.
Edda recommends using a blend of cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, anise and ginger. I use Penzey’s Baking Spice (Ceylon cinnamon, Spanish anise, Grenadian mace and Guatemalan cardamom) which I like a lot, probably because it is easy on the cinnamon. I could try with just anise, the only spice I ever use in pain d’épices or go for a touch of cardamom and pair it with some of that caramelized pear jam I made last year or try pairing nutmeg and blackberry jelly or… The possibilities are endless. Which goes to show that, for me, nonnettes are really not about nostalgia. Move over, madeleines, and make way. The future has arrived!
Yields 24 mini-muffin-sized and 16 regular-muffin-sized nonnettes (baked in mini-brioches paper molds)*
- Turn on the oven to 320°F/160°C
- Scale flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Whisk until thoroughly blended
- Scale honey, sugar, butter and water in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer while stirring with a wooden spoon and turn off the heat
- Let the wet mixture cool for a few minutes while you grease (lightly) the mini-muffin pan and prepare 16 muffin-sized paper molds*
- Stir wet mixture into dry ingredients until blended (do not over mix)
- Pour a dollop of batter in each muffin hole (it shouldn’t be more than one third full), place a small spoonful of orange marmalade on top and top with the rest of the batter (the muffin hole shouldn’t be more than half full when you are done)
- Bake for 15 minutes
- Let cool on a rack for a few minutes, then unmold