Today’s entry is inevitable. As a student of French literature, I must write about the great French author Marcel Proust’s definitive “food memory” scene, which may well be the most well-known in all of literature. While Proust’s madeleine may seem a cliché, at least to French readers, there is truly nothing cliché about Marcel Proust’s work. Obsessed with dissecting the experience of memory, he chose food as an emblematic pathway between past and present. Through sensory experiences, we do not think of the past, rather the past simply invades the present. A complete emotional state returns intact, bypassing the intellect altogether.
After taking a bite of Madeleine mixed with tea, the narrator feels an inexplicable and profound joy. He slowly realizes that the taste was the same as the one of a cake he would always have on Sunday mornings in Combray as a child. In the magnificent passage that follows this discovery, Proust explains its importance:
Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.
(But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.)
Of course, we all have our own Madeleines, the tastes and smells that evoke on the deepest level another time and place. But the Madeleine is nonetheless a wonderful French confection, and one that is especially enjoyed by children. It is a dense, buttery cake baked in small, scalloped molds and often lightly scented with lemon or orange.
Here is the recipe I use, which comes from the book Tante Marie, la Véritable cuisine traditionnelle, a very old fashioned guide to basic French home cooking. My only change is lemon zest instead of juice, since I find it imparts the lemon scent without the acidity. I do use the traditional madeleine molds since I have a pan for them, and because I find them so charming, but you could use muffin tins, just not filled up to the top.
200 g (1 3/4 cup) flour
150 g (3/4 cup) sugar
125 g (1/2 cup) butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 pinch of salt
the zest of half a lemon
Mix eggs and sugar well. Add the flour then melted butter and lemon. Spoon the batter (which should be thick and shiny) into buttered molds. Bake at 350 until golden. Remove and cool on a rack.
The last time I made them, I also added a little glaze, which was lovely. To do this, blend lemon juice and powdered sugar until you achieve the consistency you like for glazing. Dip the warm cakes in the glaze and allow to dry.
These little gems are as satisfying to make and look at as they are to eat. They are very fast and easy, and are perfect for a brunch, a kids’ play date, or as a thank you gift. And Proust swears by them with tea.