Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Proust's Madeleine

As a fan of fine literature and food, I was curious when I first ran across Edmund Levin's article for Slate "The Way the Cookie Crumbles: How much did Proust know about Madeleines?" 

In Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator tastes some crumbs from the bottom of his teacup and experiences a flood of childhood memories: 
"I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. 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 invaded my senses."
In his article, Levin argues that Proust pretty much made the whole thing up. A typical madeleine leaves no crumbs he argues, and worse yet, he claims that the crumbs have no taste. 

Like Proust's child narrator, I've loved madeleines since I was a kid. When I was a young girl growing up in Olympia, my mom would take me to Batdorf and Bronson after ballet or violin and I'd always have one of their delicious madeleines (I think I tried the cookies with pretty much every beverage there - but tea was the best). My mom and I would chat about art, music and all manner of delightfully grown-up topics while taking in the aroma of roasting coffee beans and thumbing through independent newspapers. Those are fabulous memories. 

At least I thought they were! 

For a moment after reading Levin's article, I questioned my childhood experiences. Were Proust and I both crazy? I knew I'd tasted those crumbs, but it had been a while. Surely this food writer must be right, and I wrong. There's no way he would have made this up...right? 

To see if I could replicate some childhood memories and have a "Proust moment" of my own, I sat down with Julia Child's recipe from The Way to Cook and the madeleine pan I received for Mother's day. I figure that if anyone could settle this once and for all, it was Julia. 

Here's Julia's recipe (more or less). 

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. flour + 1 T for preparing pans
5 oz. butter
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 t. vanilla

Now, while I fiddle with Julia's ingredients a bit (she calls for "drops of lemon juice and vanilla" - whatever that means), I stick to her preparation guide fairly religiously: 
  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Measure 1/4 c. eggs into bowl. Beat in sugar and flour. Blend and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Madelines 015
  • Melt butter in saucepan. Bring to a boil and let brown slightly (it should be a lovely caramel colour). Place 1 1/2 T. in a bowl and set aside (very important!)
  • Stir the rest of the butter over ice until cool but still liquid
  • Blend the cooled butter with the reserved 1/4 c. of the eggs into the butter with the salt, lemon juice, rind and vanillaMadelines 019
  • Mix remaining butter (1T) with the 1T of flour you have reserved, and use the mixture to prepare the madeleine pans. 
  • Divide batter into 24 lumps of 1 T each (okay, so I don't follow this part so religiously - measuring 1 T for each madeleine should do the trick)Madelines 010
  • Bake 13-15 minutes or until browned around the edges and a teensy bit on top!Madelines 005
I love this recipe. I put a fair bit of lemon juice in my madeleines. I like them that way - they smell positively divine when they come out of the oven! And Julia's trick of mixing the melted butter with the flour and using the mix to prep the pans is pure genius - there's never so much as a speck of batter left clinging to the pan. All you need to do afterwards is rinse the pans with warm water. Don't use any detergent - it's unnecessary, and can harm the seasoning of the pan. Also, don't buy a nonstick madeleine pan! It's a terrible waste - not only are most nonstick pans junk, but even the expensive ones won't allow your madeleines to brown properly.

These delightful cookies are pure poetry, and will leave delightfully perfumed crumbs in the bottom of your teacup after dunking. Feel free to use your spoon to capture a few, a la Proust, when no-one's looking!

Now to the controversy. Levin extrapolates several things about Proust's madeleines from the text, all of which seem silly to me. Most importantly, he argues that Proust's madeleine would have needed to be very dry, in order produce such a quantity of crumbs. Now, this is plain nonsense. Has this guy ever dunked a donut? 

I could go on... but for now, I think I'll just enjoy my madeleines. 


Thorsprincess said...

Oh Margaret,
Thank you for the memories and for the best exposition and recipe for madeleines I've ever read!

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Dear Margaret, please, please, please trust Proust and trust your childhood memories, they are the foundation of everything else. I do not want to embark on a diatribe against Mr. Edmund Levin —his article may have its merits— but tell him to puh-lease leave Proust's tea and memory soaked crumbs to us.

I have a new suggestion for people who want to follow the investigative trail blazed by Levin: submit a formal query to the American Institute of Electrical Engineering as to whether Walt Whitman was being overly fanciful when he wrote "I sing the body electric ..."

willow said...

Okay. I must go out immediately and purchase a madeleine tin. I've never made them and will remedy that soon. Thank you for the inspiration!

Margaret said...

- Mom: you are so sweet! I wish I could share the finished product with you!

- Lorenzo: thank you for the comment! Fortunately, at the end of the piece, Levin exhorts his readers to go out and make madeleines themselves, but the rest of the article seemed pretty silly to me. Plus it just didn't make sense. After making Proustian madeleines (twice) I decided that Mr. Levin either can't cook, or he wanted this experiment to fail (or both!).

- Willow: enjoy the madeleines. They really are very easy (especially the second time you make them!).

ParisBreakfasts said...

I too feel the contagion...
And there is not a madeleine for miles around at this time of night.
Oh to be in the Paris Metro near a vending machine full of madeleines.
some people have it good.
And others can bake.
Very witty

Margaret said...

Welcome, and thanks for stopping by, ParisBreakfasts!

I never noticed madeleine vending machines in the Metro. I'll have to keep my eyes peeled next time! It seems a shame though, to settle for the vending machine variety, when there are such delicious madeleines all over Paris.

Vivian said...

Great entry! Our brain stores memories best when emotion is felt with them. Wonderful that you and your mom shared these interests!

My Castle in Spain said...

Love your post and your delightful sense of humour...!
Believe me madeleines can be crumbly and i do not question at all the veracity of Proust sensual experiment. Anyway, it could be with madeleine or pain au chocolat, the result would have been the same...

Mille mercis for your visit and lovely comment !

Margaret said...

It seems Mr. Levin suffers from a lack of imagination. I'm glad to see that so many people prefer Proust's take on the madeleine!

Thanks for the comments!

(but shame on you, My Castle in Spain - now I have to bake pain au chocolat!!)

ParisBreakfasts said...

They have madeleines in vending machines on most train stations too, she adds proudly!
OK, I do feel guilty about eating mass produced madeleines.
the last time I was in Fauchon, I almost succombed to their multiple flavors of M.s-at least 5-6 different flavors.
Fortunately the woman ahead of me was indecisive and I ran out of the store with nought.
There's a post here...

Margaret said...

Wow. 5-6 different flavours? I'm going to have to start expanding my repertoire!

Anonymous said...

What a lovely recipe. I will have to look out for a madeline tray. Thanks for sharing. Childhood memories win! I like that.

Davidikus said...

Well, Levin is somehow contradicting himself! If there are no crumbs, they cannot be tasteless.

Perhaps something is lost in the translation? (I don't have my Proust with me, so I cannot tell what crumbs translates here). Or perhaps what with Levin not being French, he thinks of something different when he speaks of Madeleines? I can assure you, though, that the Madeleines that can be found all over Paris do crumble slightly; all the more so if they are wet! What is less realistic, though, is that a well brought up son of the Bourgeoisie would be allowed to soak cake into his drink, this is seen as unacceptable by most of the Parisian bourgeoisie (at least nowadays: my remark might sound anachronistic).


Margaret said...

@Davidikus - Thank you for stopping by! Yeah, I'm not sure what Levin was thinking...he claims to have made a number of recipes for madeleines, none of which satisfied him. Like I said, maybe he's just a lousy cook ;). Oh, and I think dunking is pretty much frowned on by the whole of polite society these days. It may have been different in Proust's time, but remember, the narrator was just a kid when he was doing this, and kids will dunk when no-one's looking...as will I ;) Perhaps no-one was watching when the narrator dunked his madeleine?