Why shouldn’t I name my daughter after a cake? Why would association to a flower or a saint be a better choice? In my world there is no higher honor! My husband associates the second and third names of our daughter to the more traditional, even though he was so sweet to draw and graph a madeleine cake for me to sew for her wall when she was a baby.
I shall always have a contented smile for the idea that she not only carries the name of these delicate shell-cup shaped morsels but that she likes their flavour too! Madeleines are a signature small french cake from Commercy, in the Lorraine region of the north east of France. A tiny sponge cake traditionally flavoured with a hint of lemon or almond, they are prepared in moulds with a shell shaped indentation.In 1755, the once king of Poland, exiled Stanislaus I, the duke of Lorraine and Bar also father in law of Louis XV, gave an elaborate dinner at his chateau of Commercy. During the dinner there was a dispute in the kitchen and the chef quit, taking with him the dessert! A quick thinking young woman named Madeleine proposed making a cake taught to her by her grandmother. Stanislaus and his guests were so enchanted by the recipe and the original shape that Stanislaus christened them madeleines.
One side curves to hug the tin’s form and the tops freely rise up rounded to make a little hump; madeleines are two bites of scrumptiousness that when dunked in hot chocolate make a glorious tea time sublime. And there I go. I told my husband I wouldn’t do it. I would stay well away from the famous dipped madeleine moment for he believes that a post about madeleines would be far more original without it. P…. P….. Oh spit it out! I can’t help it. Proust Proust Proust! I said it. There. Sorry my love, but I have to talk about it. Because if there were ever someone subsisting almost entirely on the concept of liaisons between involuntary memory and food then I am it!
In case you are unaware and are wondering what I am going on about, below is the immortalising passage for little madeleine. The sensationally famous Valentin Louis George Eugène Marcel Proust wrote the following in the first tome, Swann’s Way (1913) of his spectacular In Search of Lost Times,
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. 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.
Fixated on the breathtaking distraction found in such involuntary memory triggers, I have always been very sensitive to living in these sorts of reveries. My own complete absorption with food has graced me with experiencing a countless number of my own ‘madeleines’. It was pure chance to have baked with my paternal grandmother, to have known her vintage sunbeam like a conjurer of sorts, or to have spent time with my grandfather, a former patissier by trade, whose wood fired oven scent interlaced with infinite delicacies of my youth. Entirely beyond a passion, more closely resembling an element necessary for survival, I have absorbed within me the soothing elements of baking and being surrounded by people doing so from my infancy. Somehow so pivotal to my own feelings of security, intrinsic to wellbeing, the kitchen itself stands silent and always ready in anticipation. To cream butter, or to rub it into flour, these are quite modest foundation gestures of baking. But where a recipe will be leading to within the depths of my memory sometimes I scarcely even know myself, for I am blessed to have baking itself as a deeply soothing, rudimentary ‘madeleine’.
I try the best I can to impart to my own children the happy haven that a kitchen can be. Rich, colourful sensorily abundant experiences; encouragement to immerse themselves within the discovery, creation and idle dreaming that it provides. Perhaps with such intensity for I know these experiences as such a source of relief to lighten challenging times. I adore to see my daughter’s face as she bites into her cake namesake. Perhaps this small morsel of scoop-shaped sponge shell will be packed in her own trousseau of figurative madeleines. Proust has bestowed upon the little madeleine the tastiest, most romantically poignant fame, but this cake-specific quotation is not my favourite of his musings. Rather, I prefer to encourage the children in his assertion that, ‘If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time.’ Happy baking xx
Homemade madeleines taste lovely with a mere hint of rosewater, but when I buy them, they are fabulous plain, with an almost indiscernible waft of lemon. The beautiful spanish magdalenas, an approximation of the french madeleine, have a much more pronounced lemon flavour. If you wish to omit the rosewater, add very finely grated lemon rind to the batter at the moment when you add the flour and butter. You will need 2 x 12 standard madeleine baking trays, or shallow fairy cake sheets.
25g ground almonds
8g baking powder
good pinch of salt
2 tsp rose water (or if omitting rose water, the finely grated zest of a lemon)
Melt the butter in a saucepan. As the butter is cooling, beat the sugar and eggs together until thick, foamy and pale.
Add the flour, baking powder, salt, cooled butter and rose water, working to a smooth batter. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Grease and flour the madeleine or fairy cake trays. Cook for 8 minutes but please watch them carefully, as they brown very quickly. They should browned to the edges, often with the little humps at the centre bursting upward, which will remain pale. Cool slightly and then pop them out of their trays, if you leave them slightly too long, you will need to give them a good jiggle at the edges of each to ease them free. Serve with a tea or chocolate, makes 24, plus just a tad left over for spoon licking, bowl scraping children.