Cakes and literature. Unless you enjoy a nibble while you’re reading a book, the two don’t often go hand in hand. Fans of Charles Dickens might point to Miss Havisham’s decaying wedding cake in Great Expectations as one example. But there’s a little cake out there that’s synonymous with a literary giant. It’s light, spongey and not much bigger than a walnut, yet it’s imbued with the potential to evoke powerful memories of things past. It’s the humble madeleine, and it will forever be associated with the French writer Marcel Proust.
2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first of seven volumes of Proust’s most famous work, In Search Of Lost Time ("À la recherche du temps perdu"). Proust’s narrator involuntarily recalls an episode from his childhood after tasting a madeleine dipped in tea.
“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.”
For some who have tasted a madeleine, it may come as a surprise that something so simple - and, admittedly, so plain - could trigger such a gushing deluge of memories that would fill seven long and ponderous volumes. For many others, the madeleine will forever have a special place among the pantheon of pastries, sponges and biscuits that make our lives that little bit sweeter (or in Proust’s case, bitter-sweet).
So, what is it? Proust describes it as “... one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.” A familiar mixture of flour, sugar, eggs and butter is brought to life with the juice and zest of a lemon before being spooned into a special moulded baking tray, which gives each madeleine its distinctive shell-like shape. The result is a subtle, crumbly, moist sponge-cake-cum-biscuit with a humped back. An elegant rather than elaborate confection, which practically begs to be immersed in a piping hot cup of tea.
Recently unearthed early drafts of Proust's masterwork suggest that it was initially toasted bread with honey, then a biscotto - a hard biscuit - that evoked such recollections in the author. Only the third draft of his manuscript featured a soft madeleine as the now-famous memory trigger.
But before Proust even got his hands on a madeleine (or honey toast, or biscotti), these unassuming little cakes had been winning over the affections of French tea-dunkers since the late 18th century. So the story goes, the madeleine was named after a young maid who baked the cakes for Stanislas Leczinski - the Duke of Lorraine and deposed King of Poland - in the town of Commercy. There are other versions of the story, but Commercy has claimed the madeleine as its own. There are countless variations on the traditional recipe. Julia Child recommended adding vanilla extract and a pinch of salt, while others opt for finely ground almonds, orange blossom water or even healthy chia seeds. On her Little Paris Kitchen TV show, Rachel Khoo adds honey to the mix and plonks a raspberry on each madeleine before piping lemon curd into the freshly baked article.
While the macaron might be the fashionable French confection du jour, the madeleine has not escaped the attention of some of the world’s most renowned chefs and restaurants. The likes of Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud and Heston Blumenthal all have their own take on the madeleine. Even London’s St. John restaurant - known for its contemporary revival of traditional British recipes - has inspired many a home cook with its oven-fresh madeleines. There can be few better places to find the perfect madeleine, however, than Paris. Fabrice Le Bourdat’s Ble Sucré is a small boulangerie in the Ledru-Rollin area, which has won a loyal following for its light madeleines with a lemony glaze. Established in 1886, gourmet delicatessen Fauchon doesn’t just do a mean madeleine, its original store is actually situated on Place de la Madeleine. And if you’d prefer a madeleine with a distinctly Japanese flavour, try the matcha green tea madeleines at Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki. Whichever madeleine you try, if Proust was right, you’ll be unlikely to forget it.
You can start by making it at home with our Madeleine recipe.