One of the most famous scenes in literature is in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s monumental masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, where the narrator experiences an episode of involuntary memory through the simple act of tasting madeleine crumbs soaked in tea. The madeleine serves as a powerful sensory trigger for a memory about eating a similar madeleine dipped in tea with his aunt in his childhood home in Combray and eventually unleashes a deluge of memories resulting in a seven-volume magnum opus of reminiscences. I have a wonderful recipe for Proust’s madeleines, but first, let’s enjoy reading the beautiful passage along with my translation, which, I hope, will double the pleasure of savoring the madeleines and perhaps evoke our own remembrances of things past.
Il y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n’était pas le théâtre et le drame de mon coucher n’existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d’hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j’avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d’abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaient avoir été moulées dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse: ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. J’avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D’où avait pu me venir cette puissante joie ? Je sentais qu’elle était liée au goût du thé et du gâteau, mais qu’elle le dépassait infiniment, ne devait pas être de même nature. D’où venait-elle ? Que signifiait-elle ? Où l’appréhender ? Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. Il est temps que je m’arrête, la vertu du breuvage semble diminuer. Il est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui, mais en moi.
Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, A la recherche du temps perdu
And here’s my translation:
Many years had gone by already during which nothing of Combray, except for what constituted the theater and drama of my bedtime, existed for me, when one winter day, as I returned home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that I take some tea, which was contrary to my habit. I declined at first and, I don’t know why, changed my mind later. She sent for one of those small and plump cakes called “Petites Madeleines” which looked as though they had been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell of Saint James*. And soon, overwhelmed by the dreary morning and the prospect of a grim morrow, I mechanically brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful mixed with the crumbs of cake touched my palate, I shuddered, attentive to the extraordinary sensation that was passing through me. A delicious pleasure had invaded my senses, it was detached, without any intimation of its origin. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life irrelevant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, in the same way that love works, filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. From where had this powerful joy come to me? I sensed that it was tied to the taste of the tea and the cake, but it transcended it infinitely, it wasn’t of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it signify? How do I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful in which I don’t find anything more than in the first, a third which brings me even a little less than the second. It’s time I stop, the virtue of the beverage seems to be diminishing. It is clear that the truth that I am looking for is not in it, but in me.
*Madeleine cakes were shaped like scallop shells. These shells were the symbol of St. James and were worn or carried by pilgrims in the Middle Ages on their way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
This episode of involuntary memory is followed by a conscious effort on the part of the narrator as he painstakingly tries to recapture the fleeting memories triggered by the cake. In that sense, the madeleine episode is as much about voluntary memory as it is about involuntary memory. Eventually, after repeated attempts, the old grey house with its little pavilion opening on to the garden, the town with its square and streets, the flowers in the garden and in Mr. Swann’s park, the water-lilies on the Vivonne, the village residents and their dwellings, the church and the entire town of Combray and its surroundings spring back into life from his little cup of linden blossom tea.
Long before it acquired its great literary reputation, this humble confection was quite the rage in the eighteenth century in a town named Commercy, in the Lorraine region of eastern France. It is believed that the nuns of the St. Mary Magdalene convent made these sweets and sold the prized recipe to the local bakers when their institution was destroyed. Another popular story is about a young servant girl named Madeleine Paulmier who made the delectable sponge cakes for Stanislas Leczinski, the Duke of Lorraine, for a royal banquet when his pastry chef quit unexpectedly. He was so impressed that he named them after her. His daughter who was the wife of Louis the XV, subsequently introduced them to the court in Versailles. Just as there are many versions and variants of the story of the origin of the madeleine, there are many recipes with countless variations. Julia Child has a recipe for ‘Les Madeleines de Commercy’ with lemon juice and vanilla extract added to the batter. My recipe is based on the instructions on the back of my madeleine pan bought at Williams-Sonoma (Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Paris, by Marlena Spieler) as I believe it results in madeleines that are ‘dodus’ or plump with a dry and crumbly texture as enjoyed by Proust’s narrator. I have modified the recipe to suit my taste by adding more sugar. Yes, I like my madeleines sweet. I’ve also added lemon zest for some zing. I like them spicy too.
Yield- Around 20 madeleines
Specialty equipment- Madeleine pans ( molds with scallop-shaped indentations available in kitchen stores and online at Amazon)
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. salt
4 tbsps. ( ½ stick ) of unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature)
1 ½ tbsps. lemon zest finely grated
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and cool to room temperature.
Combine eggs, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Beat on medium high speed in an electric mixer until the mixture turns pale yellow and fluffy and forms a ribbon pattern. This should take around 5-10 minutes.
Add the vanilla extract and the lemon zest.
Sift the flour gradually over the egg mixture and beat on low speed till it is mixed in.
Gradually fold in the melted butter until blended.
Cool the batter for a few hours in a refrigerator if you want the characteristic hump shape on the madeleines. You could also freeze the baking tray for an hour before filling it with the batter for baking. Heat the oven to 375 F. Using a pastry brush, brush the molds of the madeleine pans with softened butter and dust them with flour. Use an ice-cream scoop to put 1 tablespoon of batter in the middle of each mold. It will spread while baking in the indentation of the pan. Bake 8-12 minutes until the madeleines are golden brown and spring back lightly when gently pressed.
Remove the pan from the oven. Gently loosen the madeleines from their molds by rapping the pan against the counter or prying them loose with a butter knife. Let cool for a few minutes and invert on a plate. Dust the madeleines with confectioners’ sugar before serving, if desired. They are best eaten fresh but can be stored for a day or two in an airtight container.
Use orange zest instead of lemon zest.
Almond extract can be substituted for vanilla extract.
Add a teaspoon of ground cardamom for a delicately spiced fragrance and taste.
Melt semi-sweet chocolate chips and dip the tips of the madeleines in the chocolate.
Bake some madeleines, brew some tea or tisane and wait for your olfactory and gustatory senses to help you re-create your own Proustian moment as you embark on the path of nostalgia and recollections! Bon appétit!