The visitation referred to in this case was the one made by the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, before Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist. The cakes don’t derive from an ancient Hebrew recipe, but were originated in the convent of a community of French nuns called the Sisters of the Visitation, colloquially known in French as the "Visitandines."

I first tried a recipe for these as a teenager, after reading The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Regrettably, that recipe omits sugar (probably an oversight) and my first Visitandines were a dismal failure. I had a chance to taste true Visitandines a few times while traveling through France in the early 1970s, but I never managed to locate a recipe for them. When I recently consulted other editions of the Toklas book, unfortunately, the sugar was still absent from the recipe.

Armed with a desire to find a good recipe for these cakes, especially after I saw them make an appearance at Sprungli, a monumentally great Zurich pastry shop that doesn’t ever share recipes, I looked around for a reliable source. I found it in famed Parisian pastry chef Gaston Le Notre’s Desserts Traditionnels de France (Traditional French Desserts) (Flammarion, 1991). Le Notre even mentions that the little cakes originated in the convent of the Visitation community, but that they were subsequently improved by pastry chefs who prepared them elsewhere. When I tried the recipe, I knew that his Visitandines were the real thing—rich, buttery, and delicate, just like the ones I had tasted years earlier in France.

A similar recipe appears in Darenne and Duval’s early-twentieth century Traite de Patisserie Moderne (Treatise on Modern Pastrymaking) (Flammarion, Revised Edition, 1974). My own recipe for Visitandines, which appears below, builds off of both of them.

About twenty four small cakes, depending on the size of the molds used

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup (about 3 ounces) blanched almonds, finely ground in the food processor
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
4 large egg whites
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
3 tablespoons dark rum

Twenty four 2 1/2-inch oval molds, buttered and floured and placed on a jellyroll pan; or mini muffin pans

  1. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
  2. Put the butter in a medium saucepan and melt it over medium heat. Continue cooking the butter until it colors lightly. (It will foam up and abruptly change from yellow to a pale brown color.) Immediately remove the pan from the heat and pour the butter into a heatproof bowl. Set aside for a few minutes while preparing the rest of the batter.
  3. Put the almonds, confectioners' sugar, and egg whites in the same saucepan and place over low heat, stirring constantly, until they are just warm, about 100 to 105 degrees.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and fold in the flour. Fold in the butter and then fold in the rum.
  5. Use a large soup spoon to fill the molds about 2/3 full. Bake the cakes until they are well risen and deep golden and they feel firm when pressed with a fingertip.
  6. Cool in the pans for 2 minutes, then invert the pans to racks to cool the cakes. Immediately turn the cakes right side up after placing them on the racks.

Serving: These are good with coffee or a glass of sweet wine. Their excellent flavor and texture will encourage you to eat more than one.

Storage: Keep the cakes loosely covered with plastic wrap on the day they are made. For longer storage, transfer them to a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover in one layer and refrigerate them. Bring them back to room temperature before serving again.