Well, I was going to title this post “Proust comes to Vermont,” but that wasn’t quite accurate. Instead I was the one who came to Vermont last month, flying across the country to visit my dear friend Rachel, who I hadn’t seen in many years.
Rachel in the Ripton Country Store
But Marcel Proust was with us, at least a little bit too, in the form of madeleines.
Even if you haven’t read a page of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” you may have heard of the passage in which he dips “one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell,” in a cup of tea, evoking a flood of memories.
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, 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 me.
… And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before Mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
Interestingly, Proust made the little scalloped cake so famous that Webster’s dictionary defines the madeleine not only as “a small, rich, shell-shaped cake,” but in a second definition as “one that evokes a memory.”
Rachel had some nice new French madeleine tins she hadn’t tried out yet, and we had a couple days of rainy weather, so we pored through the cookbooks and found a recipe that sounded good in “Paris Sweets” by Dorrie Greenspan.
New madeleine tins. Photo by Rachel Hunter.
Mixing up the batter together, we remembered our silly kitchen adventures some 40 (gasp!) years past, making Grasshopper Pie (creme de menthe, creme de cacao, Oreo cookies, marshmallows. Really, did we eat that??? Ugh.)
And as we laughed and reminisced, I reflected on other experiences of cooking with friends and loved ones. Candied lemon peel with Cathy. Cantucci ( Tuscan biscotti) with Iris. Spanakopita with Nia. Pesto with Laurie. Antipasto with Cathy, Meg and Christina. Lemon pizza with Zak. Pies–rhubarb, lemon, apple– with Aviva.
Toby and Aviva — and rhubarb pie.
As delicious as the results of these cooking-together sessions usually were (often with recipes more complicated and time consuming than my usual fare), even more wonderful was the shared pleasure of long and timeless friendship–the laughter and camaraderie mingled with a dusting of flour, a drizzle of olive oil, the flurry of chopping onions, apples or nuts, the scents of just-picked basil or freshly grated lemon zest — each experience truly a madeleine of the memory-evoking kind.
The day after we made the madeleines (which were very pretty, by the way), Rachel set some out on a plate accompanied by a bottle of Sauternes that she deemed a perfect pairing. She sifted through her vintage collection for some adorable embroidered napkins and even little doily-like slippers for the wineglass stems (!) and made a lovely arrangement.
It was really too early in the day to be drinking Sauternes, so instead we just enjoyed doing a photo shoot. And I promised to do a blog post on the madeleines.
I brought some of the madeleines back home for Steve, who was happy to have them. In the first couple days after my return, he ate all but one out of the cookie tin. But in the whirlwind of summertime visits and visitors, he forgot about that one lonely madeleine in the tin. And, in the laziness of long, fruit-filled summer days, I almost forgot about my promise to do a blog post.
That is, just until a few days ago, when I gently warmed up some fresh peaches and blueberries (with a couple tablespoons of sugar and water to make a sauce) and served them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. “This would be good with a cookie,” I suggested.
“What about that madeleine?” he asked. “Do we still have one?”
Indeed we did, and it was very stale, but Steve said he still enjoyed it.
And as for Marcel Proust? In an amusing 2005 piece in Slate
, Edmund Levin tried to decipher the recipe from Proust’s descriptive passage in his novel. He concluded that real madeleines don’t produce crumbs at all — even when stale. “Proust’s madeleine did not, does not, and never could have existed,” Levin writes. “To put it bluntly: Proust didn’t know from madeleines.”
Be that as it may, the recipe we used from Paris Sweets was just right (it’s essential to let the batter rest a few hours or overnight) and we used David Lebovitz’s tip
(though not his madeleine recipe) to brush them with a simple lemon glaze. A big thank you to Dorie Greenspan, Marcel Proust, and all my cooking and baking friends!
- 3/4 cup (105 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 1/2 cup sugar (100 grams)
- grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Sift the flour and baking soda
Beat eggs and sugar together with a mixture until thick and lighter in color, 2 to 4 minutes
Add lemon zest and vanilla
Gently fold dry ingredients into the egg-sugar mixture, followed by the butter
Refrigerate mixture in a covered container, at least 3 hours, preferably longer and up to 2 days.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter the tin and dust with flour. Divide the batter into the molds — don’t fill them too full. Don’t worry about smoothing out the batter; it will even out as it bakes.
Bake in the upper part of the oven for 11 to 13 minutes, until the madeleines are puffed and golden, and spring back when touched. Don’t over-bake. Remove and cool on a rack
If you are using lemon glaze, mix 3/4 cup confectioners sugar with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and brush on the madeleines while they are still warm.