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Beyond Searching for Lost Time

Thursday, 03 February 2011

Madeleines
Madeleines Photo by Nick Fleming
Mention Madeleines, those yummy little lemony cakes, in intellectual company - you know the type who read good-for-you classics - and invariably the conversation turns to that exalted moment in Proust's magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, when he discovers the key to his Universe when served a Lemony Cake (Fr: Madeleine):

She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, 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 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. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself.

I've not read Proust, neither in French nor in translation, but I have eaten rather a lot of Madeleines and can vouch for their ability to transport you to another realm of delightful consciousness. They have all the qualities of Prashad, that sacred sweet given when you leave a Sikh Gurdwara, only with a twist of Gallic lemon but still with lashings of butter. But, just like Prashad, it's not just about quality ingredients, there's much more to these simple little moments than that.

The essential secret with Madeleines is in the lightness of touch, which comes from the lightness of mind, with which they are made. I can only guess at how delicate those fingers were which assembled the ones which put Proust into his reverie. Baking Madeleines is an outpouring of the stillness of the mind. That's why they can change people's outlook so much: there's nothing between the consumer and his consummate passion for self-discovery.

We used to buy our Madeleines in the Place de la Madeleine, at the bottom of the grand Boulevard where I grew up in Paris. Walking down to fetch them became something of a ritual: my brother adored plays on words and loved that we bought these lemony cakes in their namesake encouraging us to sit on the steps of the eponymous church, dedicated to Mary Magdelene, to eat them immediately. Then they were as light as a feather but by the next morning totally stale and suitable for dunking in cafe au lait for breakfast. That's just how they are and you have to adapt to their changing ways of touching you.

Madeleines are usually made with eggs, which gives them a light dry richness and a golden spongy texture, and if that's what you want then look no further than Dorie Greenspan's lovely book Paris Sweets for one of her three recipes (and on Amazon you'll find the recipes there in the Look Inside page 19 onwards for free - although I wholeheartedly recommend you buy the book because it's packed with delicate watercolours and wonderful recipes). We don't eat meat, fish or eggs here at Club 15CC, and I've discovered that yoghurt and yeast make them no less delicious and still light and fluffy.

Madeleines need a shell-shaped mould, lots of butter and juicy lemonsThe key feature of Madeleines is the pan you bake them in; they simply must be little shell-shape moulds in memory of the shells which pilgrims used to carry with them in France. The quantity below works with my 16 piece Madeleine pan.

We also eat very little sugar here so you may wish to double the amount I use if you want that extra sweetness.

In a large bowl, mix together with the lightest of touch using the tips of your fingers:

  • 50g Sugar
  • Zest and juice of 2 juicy Lemons (70g of juice) - right now we're buying the most exquisite Bergamot Lemons which are simply divine, but failing that use Sicilian ones, and failing that any lemon which is full of flavour and juice
  • Seeds of 2 plump Vanilla Pods
  • 70g of yoghurt

In a separate bowl mix together:

Make sure that all the fresh yeast is integrated into the flour before you very gently pour all these dry ingredients into lemon yoghurt sugar liquid. Combine them together ever so lightly to make a slightly runny dough. Too dry and you'll end up with rock cakes; too runny and it won't rise.

In a small saucepan melt

  • 100g Unsalted Butter

and when it's fully liquid gently fold it into the mixture.

With a pastry brush coated in the melted butter left in the pan brush the inside of each Madeleine mould. Some Madeleine moulds are notorious for sticking so if yours does, don't despair, instead after you've coated it once with the finest layer of melted butter, put it in the fridge until the butter sets before adding a second thin layer of melted butter. That should do the trick.

Divide mixture about a dessertspoon per mould and bake in a pre-heated oven 180 for 18 minutes.

Allow tin to cool for a few minutes before turning the tin upside down over a wire rack.

Your Madeleines will just fall out with the greatest of ease.

Meanwhile, get the kettle on and brew a large pot of Tea ready for your own Proust moment. Patience please: wait until at least you've got them out of the tin, but you don't necessarily need to wait for company to join you. Sooner or later they will smell them, hear your moans of ecstasy, and come down to taste them themselves. Conversation not required.

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With love, blessings, gratitude,
Gracefully,
Guru Kaur x