Madeleines, Past and Present


The narrator of Marcel Proust's epic work may have found his muse in literature's most famous tea cake, but it was his mother who supplied it.

She's the one who quietly serves him that madeleine on a rainy night when he comes home depressed and convinced he has failed in life. From the baptism in tea of that buttery, shell-shaped sweet spring memories of a small French town that fill seven volumes of the epic Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time).

"His mother is really the one who makes him give birth to his creation, and she has done it in the most typically motherly way," said Armine Kotin Mortimer, a professor of French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who co-edited a collection of essays on Proust. "She's served him without his asking for it, and it's just what he needed."

The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls Proust's madeleine a "woman-cake" whose sweet taste, mixed with the liquid tea, echoes the good-night kiss that the narrator is determined to secure from his mother as a young boy at the beginning of the first volume, Swann's Way.

So, in remembrance of Mother and the many memories she evokes, why not present her with madeleines on Mother's Day?

Like mothers, madeleines come in varieties both classic and modern. Some madeleines are scented with cinnamon, lavender or lemon verbena, made with chocolate or even into miniature corn bread. Far from being a taste of the past, they are emerging as a currency of American coffee culture - for sale at Starbucks and even warehouse stores like Costco. Martha Stewart Living magazine recently featured an orange-cardamom madeleine as its "cookie of the month."

When Don and Susie Morris started making and selling madeleines out of their Berkeley, Calif., kitchen in 1976, "people had no idea what a madeleine was," says Susan Davis, chief executive officer of the company the couple started, Donsuemor. Now, the Emeryville, Calif., company reports that it makes more than 20 million madeleines a year for clients such as Starbucks.

After sticking with a traditional recipe for its first 25 years, Donsuemor started producing a lemon madeleine four years ago, and also offers a chocolate-dipped version. A new flavor is due out soon, Davis says - though she doesn't think the original formula should be tinkered with too much. "Never say never, but we aren't likely to be making a lavender madeleine," she says.

Debra Rollins, a private chef in Baltimore, grew up making madeleines as her family moved throughout Europe. She recently celebrated her mother's 80th birthday by making the family recipe, which she says includes several tablespoons of orange zest. Many days she enjoys them with an afternoon cup of tea.

Madeleines "are very special to me," Rollins says. One reason is the shape - "I've always loved anything to do with the sea." Another is the memories they awaken of baking with her mother.

University of Illinois professor Mortimer says the madeleine resurgence also coincides with a renewed interest in the reading of Proust's great work that began about a decade ago. "Proust has become a phenomenon, and anyone who reads Proust is going to come to the madeleine very early on," she said.

Iconic as Proust's madeleine is, though, it turns out to be easily co-opted.

In an article for the online magazine Slate last year, writer Edmund Levin described making a number of madeleine recipes and finding them decidedly uncrumbly when mixed with tea - contrary to Proust's description. He questioned whether Proust had really ever tasted one himself.

The very origin of the cake is also up for debate: Some accounts say it was named after a little girl who first presented the treats at a castle in the French town of Commercy in 1755. Others attribute it to a Commercy cook named Madeleine Paumier or to a French statesman who baked a poundcake mixture in aspic molds, according to Larousse Gastronomique, by Prosper Montagne.

Armed with a 12-shell Wilton madeleine mold, I went on a quest to find the perfect post-Proustian cake. I started with the greatest departure from the Swann's Way version I could find - a series of recipes in Cake Mix Cookies, a new cookbook by Camilla V. Saulsbury that offers almond, mocha-chip, orange, lemon-lime and "classic" madeleines, all made with cake mix. The only memories the orange madeleines produced were of the mediocre taste and spongy texture of cake from a box.

It turns out that the shell needs a shell - a crispy exterior to stand up to dunking and contain the soft crumbs inside the madeleine's signature hump. ("So fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating," Proust wrote.) Whole-wheat madeleines, inspired by a variation from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, fared better on that score. A substitution of whole-wheat pastry flour produced a cookie that tasted lovely and light on its own, with a hint of texture.

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