Proust’s Madeleine

As a fan of fine literature and food, I was curious when I first ran across Edmund Levin’s article for Slate “The Way the Cookie Crumbles: How much did Proust know about Madeleines?” 

In Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator tastes some crumbs from the bottom of his teacup and experiences a flood of childhood memories: 
“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 invaded my senses.”

In his article, Levin argues that Proust pretty much made the whole thing up. A typical madeleine leaves no crumbs he argues, and worse yet, he claims that the crumbs have no taste. 

Like Proust’s child narrator, I’ve loved madeleines since I was a kid. When I was a young girl growing up in Olympia, my mom would take me to Batdorf and Bronson after ballet or violin and I’d always have one of their delicious madeleines (I think I tried the cookies with pretty much every beverage there – but tea was the best). My mom and I would chat about art, music and all manner of delightfully grown-up topics while taking in the aroma of roasting coffee beans and thumbing through independent newspapers. Those are fabulous memories. 

At least I thought they were! 

For a moment after reading Levin’s article, I questioned my childhood experiences. Were Proust and I both crazy? I knew I’d tasted those crumbs, but it had been a while. Surely this food writer must be right, and I wrong. There’s no way he would have made this up…right? 

To see if I could replicate some childhood memories and have a “Proust moment” of my own, I sat down with Julia Child’s recipe from The Way to Cook and the madeleine pan I received for Mother’s day. I figure that if anyone could settle this once and for all, it was Julia. 

Here’s Julia’s recipe (more or less). 

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. flour + 1 T for preparing pans
5 oz. butter
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 t. vanilla

Now, while I fiddle with Julia’s ingredients a bit (she calls for “drops of lemon juice and vanilla” – whatever that means), I stick to her preparation guide fairly religiously: 

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Measure 1/4 c. eggs into bowl. Beat in sugar and flour. Blend and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Madelines 015


  • Melt butter in saucepan. Bring to a boil and let brown slightly (it should be a lovely caramel colour). Place 1 1/2 T. in a bowl and set aside (very important!)
  • Stir the rest of the butter over ice until cool but still liquid
  • Blend the cooled butter with the reserved 1/4 c. of the eggs into the butter with the salt, lemon juice, rind and vanillaMadelines 019
  • Mix remaining butter (1T) with the 1T of flour you have reserved, and use the mixture to prepare the madeleine pans. 
  • Divide batter into 24 lumps of 1 T each (okay, so I don’t follow this part so religiously – measuring 1 T for each madeleine should do the trick)Madelines 010
  • Bake 13-15 minutes or until browned around the edges and a teensy bit on top!Madelines 005

I love this recipe. I put a fair bit of lemon juice in my madeleines. I like them that way – they smell positively divine when they come out of the oven! And Julia’s trick of mixing the melted butter with the flour and using the mix to prep the pans is pure genius – there’s never so much as a speck of batter left clinging to the pan. All you need to do afterwards is rinse the pans with warm water. Don’t use any detergent – it’s unnecessary, and can harm the seasoning of the pan. Also, don’t buy a nonstick madeleine pan! It’s a terrible waste – not only are most nonstick pans junk, but even the expensive ones won’t allow your madeleines to brown properly.

These delightful cookies are pure poetry, and will leave delightfully perfumed crumbs in the bottom of your teacup after dunking. Feel free to use your spoon to capture a few, a la Proust, when no-one’s looking!

Now to the controversy. Levin extrapolates several things about Proust’s madeleines from the text, all of which seem silly to me. Most importantly, he argues that Proust’s madeleine would have needed to be very dry, in order produce such a quantity of crumbs. Now, this is plain nonsense. Has this guy ever dunked a donut? 

I could go on… but for now, I think I’ll just enjoy my madeleines. 

Ladurée Macarons

I haven’t really had any cravings during my pregnancy, but if there’s one thing that I can’t stop thinking about lately, it’s the lovely macarons (not to be confused with macaroons) from Ladurée. I think this is partly due to the empty Ladurée box sitting in my living room that I can’t bear to part with. Everytime I see it I am transported back to memories of those heavenly, perfumed, morsels. I’m not usually one to get overly ecstatic about my food. I’m not a huge chocolate addict (don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate, but I’m not one of those girls that “needs chocolate” or craves it particularly).

Anyway, there’s just something about Ladurée’s macarons that just sets them apart. But there doesn’t seem a way to get them that doesn’t involve a 9 hour flight (which, I suppose, is part of their charm). Anyway, I dearly wish that they would at least open one shop somewhere on this continent. Currently they have shops in Monaco, London, Tokyo and Switzerland. Would it kill them to open a shop in Seattle, San Francisco or Vancouver? Or even New York?

Hmm. Well, until then, I guess I’ll just have to cherish the memories. And maybe try bribing friends to bring them back from overseas trips. And perhaps even learn to make a decent macaron myself!

Musee D’Orsay Wall Divider

This room divider is just another example of how the Art Nouveau Movement succeeded in turning even relatively mundane necessities into objects of art. The front of the divider has been decorated with a lovely painting. While the painting could easily stand alone as a work of art (sorry about the glare–you can’t quite see how lovely a piece it is), the artist has chosen to give it another purpose, in addition to its beauty.

As you can see, even the back of the divider is stunning!

Every once and a while I am truly astounded by some of the beautiful works of art that have been created with the purpose of both serving and entertaining. When I saw this room divider, it really inspired me to believe that it is truly possible to find ways decorative objects that do more than simply serve a purpose. There has to be a way of making household objects both useful and uplifting!

Limoges Porcelain Painting

On our last morning in Rennes, Monique took my mom and I to see an exhibit of the traditional art of porcelain painting that featured works done by her and her friends. They call themselves “Les Atelliers du Chardon.” From what I could tell, painting china is quite popular in France and there are a lot of places that sell plain Limoges china that you can take home and paint (sort of like the ceramic painting places we have in North America, except the work these people produce is much, much finer).

The artwork was extremely high quality. I was particularly impressed by the fine detailing that the artists had used on the porcelain. I didn’t get to see their brushes, but they must have been incredibly tiny!

This is Anne Pichon, who organized the exhibit, with one of her pieces. The detail on the ducks is just amazing! It would make a great lamp for someone’s study. It’s a little masculine for my taste, but the artwork was just lovely. It reminded me of 19th century nature drawings. Anne took her inspiration from the ducks in her garden pond.

This gardenia blossom platter was one of my favourite pieces. The design was so modern and elegant.

Here’s a set of hand painted kitchen tiles, also painted by Anne.

Here we are, discussing the importance of handcrafts in Anne’s garden!

I was so impressed with the work that these ladies were doing. They are so passionate about art and about taking part in the creation of art objects for their own homes. None of the pieces of art in the exhibit were for sale, although Anne does do commissions. The ladies really just enjoyed designing beautiful one of a kind china for their own homes, which I thought was really neat.

I actually bought a number of unpainted pieces of Limoges porcelain while I was in Rennes (it’s actually very inexpensive if you buy the china straight from the factories). It’s so beautiful that it doesn’t really need to be painted, but now I want to learn!

Visit to Fougères Castle

On our first day in Rennes, Monique and Pierre drove us to a lovely Medieval village of Fougères. Fougères is located near the coast in the northwest corner of France. The village is most famous for the 11th century castle that dominates the landscape.

During the medieval period, Fougères was an important commercial centre that was known for the quality of its shoe making and weaving. In the 19th century, Victor Hugo traveled to the city to find inspiration for his novels.

This picture, taken from the interior of the castle, shows some of the details of the chateau. I was quite surprised by the size of the stones that were used to construct the castle. Most of the other castles I’ve seen contain are constructed out of much pieces of stone. Our friend Pierre believed that the people who originally constructed the castle used the local stones to construct the castle because there weren’t any rock quarries near by, but I haven’t found any research done on this. If any one knows, please share!

Oh, and I also loved all the wildflowers growing in the crooks and crannies of the castle walls!

One of the most charming things about Fougères is that the oldest part of the town has been restored to its Medieval splendor. Many of the buildings now house touristy businesses like traditional creperies, where you sit on the patio and enjoy some cider while taking in a view of the castle!