Remember how in the last post I said that Virginia Woolf’s Beouf en Daube was one of about seven literary meal holy grails? Well I’m about to tell you about another one—Marcel Proust’s madeleines. Everyone knows about the madeleine’s from Swann’s Way, it is one of the most glaringly obvious and devastatingly powerful food scenes in all of literature. Now here is where I admit to you that the madeleines are the only reason that I ever even attempted to read Proust. That, and the fact that “Swann’s Way” was the name of our summer house growing up. I’m not entirely sure who named it this, but that was always what we always called it. It was a crumbling farmhouse from the 1800’s, with those grey-brown weathered shingles you only find in New England, a fireplace so deep and wide it could comfortably accommodate four sitting children and a huge hanging cast-iron cauldron, a stone barn covered in neon yellow and cushy green moss filled with mice, owls, stray cats, and ghosts—lots and lots of ghosts.
I spent the loveliest years of my childhood with my sisters and cousins in this house, swinging on the creaky white swing-set, running around in the crabapple orchard behind the house (throwing those crabapples with all of my might at the sassy neighbor boy), lounging under the ancient weeping willow surrounded by lavender so strong-smelling it actually hurt your tiny nostrils. In the morning there were boxes of Fruity Pebbles and Entenmann’s old-fashioned donuts soaked in thick whole milk, and at night there were sunburns and fresh fish and jugs of wine and English Beat records and sometimes, if we were lucky, Hungry-Man tv dinners and Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
The other day during a particularly harrowing shift at work I got to thinking about myself as a kid, and how easy and uncomplicated it used to be to just love something and be good at it. I was absorbed in a memory of how absurdly far I could throw a baseball as an eight-year-old when my phone went off with an email from my cousin, Cam. The email was sent to me, my older sister, Ande, and my cousin, Caroline. Almost as if he had been reading my mind the email said: “I just got so nostalgic remembering how we used to come home sweaty and sun-kissed from Briggs Beach to curl our legs up in front of our Swanson’s Hungry-Man dinners and MTV. When they played music videos! When we would wait for Blind Melon and Four Non- Blondes and eat mashed potatoes that were cold in the middle but delicious on the outsides. And Beavis and Butthead and sandy feet. God I love you guys.” This started an email chain of remembering that went on all day, ending with Caroline remembering “the pit in my stomach at the feeling of the summer’s end, the mildew of the house and those great falling chestnut leaves. It brought me back to the cold nights driving there with Dad and that transition from long warm busy days to the dark cold ones of the house in winter. I guess there was a reason they named the house Swann’s Way… ‘The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.’ I wish the walls could talk. They would say that those were the best years the house has ever seen.”
All of these sensory, memory-triggering experiences that my sister, cousins and I were exchanging that day are what Proust would call “involuntary memory.” In Swann’s Way it is the eating of a madeleine dipped in tea which triggers one of these full body memory experiences for Proust.
No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
This was my first time making madeleines and I did lots of reading and testing and combining of recipes before I got a madeleine I really loved. It’s a simple little cake but one that people have very strong opinions about and attachments to (ask Proust). These madeleines are perfectly fluffy with crisp edges and they are full of warm brown butter flavor and hints of lemon.
Makes about 3 dozen
1½ sticks of unsalted butter (6 ounces) plus extra for greasing pan
¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
pinch of fine sea salt
2/3 cups sugar
1 large lemon zested
1 teaspoon good vanilla
powdered sugar for dusting
Pre-heat oven to 350. Brown the butter in a pot over medium heat. Strain the milk solids out of the browned butter using a fine mesh strainer (a paper towel works fine too). Set aside to cool to room temperature.
Grease your madeleine pan using the extra butter and dust lightly with flour (I’m sure Pam or some other cooking spray would work fine for this step too).
Add the eggs and the salt to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and whisk until thick and roughly doubled in volume. With the mixer still running add the sugar in a slow steady stream. Continue whisking until the mixture is thick, about 2 minutes (mixture should fall from a spatula in ribbons at this point). Gently fold lemon zest and vanilla into the egg mixture, being careful not to over mix. Now fold in the flour until just incorporated then gently fold in brown butter. Scoop into madeleine molds (about 2/3 full) and bake at 350 for about 12 minutes or until the edges are nicely browned. Invert onto a serving plate and allow to cool before dusting with powdered sugar.