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. 

Julia Child’s Beurre Blanc

For the past few months, I’ve been a little more obsessed than usual about cooking. It started when my husband and I went to go see Julie and Julia a little while before the baby was born. We both loved the movie, and it inspired me to be a little more adventurous in the kitchen.

I’ve always loved to cook, but I’ve historically been rather timid when it comes to sauces. I tended to make a very good, but very safe, bechamel (and its variations) over and over again. This has changed! I have discovered that sauces are really quite simple, and so I’ve been charting new territory (for me) in the sauce department.

As part of my culinary inspiration, I’ve been reading Julia Child’s My Life in France (even better than the movie!). If that book doesn’t make you want to cook (or at least eat) really well, nothing will!

Sauce Beurre Blanc
1/4 cup white-wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth ( I used a Sauvignon Blanc)
1 tablespoon finely minced shallots or scallions
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
8 to 12 ounces [1 to 1 1/2 cups, or 2 to 3 sticks]
chilled best-quality unsalted butter, cut into 16 or 24 pieces

1. Begin by boiling the liquids.
2. Add the shallots and salt and pepper to taste.
3. Continue to simmer on a low heat until most of the liquid has evaporated.
4. Remove from heat.
5. Add butter to this mixture a piece or two at a time, taking time after each addition to whisk the mixture vigorously until the butter has been completely absorbed into the sauce before adding more butter.

The secret to getting sauces right is having all of the ingredients prepared ahead of time! Now when I cook I try to always have everything chopped and portioned ahead of time in little containers – it makes a world of difference!

Now, beurre blanc is amazing with fish, and I had two sea bass fillets that had been sitting in the freezer for weeks. You see, I can count on one hand the number of times that I ate fish at home as a child, and I’ve always been afraid of it. It always seemed like it would be immensely complicated.

Sea Bass Fillets with Mushrooms- Inspired by Julia, but with some revisions.
2 teaspoons butter
2 Tablespoons minced shallot
2 fillets of fish
salt and white pepper
juice of 1/2 fresh lemon (Julia wants you to use 2/3 cup white wine and 1/3 cup fish stock)
1 c thinly sliced crimini mushrooms (I just think they look better on the fish than white mushrooms).

1. Set pan over medium heat and add butter.
2. Sprinkle shallots and cook slowly to soften without colouring.
3. Remove from heat
4. Season fillets on both sides with salt and pepper.
5. Lay in pan skin side down (where skin used to be – the skin should be removed)
6. Pour in lemon juice (should be enough to cover fish 1/2 way).
7. Lay sliced mushrooms over the fillets.
8. Put parchment paper over the pan.
9. Put on lid and bring liquid to a simmer and hold for 5 minutes. Make sure fish is cooked throughout. Serve topped with the beurre blanc.

Now, Julia’s recipe (which is for sole) calls for fish stock and 2/3 cup wine, rather than the lemon juice. I’m sure she’s rolling in her grave, but I didn’t happen to have any fish stock lying around, and I wasn’t about to use another 2/3 cup wine in the fish. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, this was the first time I’ve cooked fish, and I’ve never had ANY fish that I really liked, so I thought the lemon juice might make it less fishy.

Well, I will stand by my own recipe for two reasons: firstly, I LOVED it. Amazing! If I do say so myself. I have no more fear of cooking fish! Secondly, even though I used the juice of 1/2 lemon, the fish did not have an overpowering lemon flavour. At all.

Now, I’m a lousy food blogger, because I have no pictures. It looked so good, and we ate it immediately. Well, almost immediately – I had my dear husband stand in the kitchen and stir the sauce for about 20 minutes while I fed the baby and put her to sleep! So, you’ll have to use your imaginations, or better yet, make your own beurre blanc!

Oh, one more thing: this is a really rich sauce. I’m not sure how Julia managed to tuck into 1/2 cup of butter at a sitting, but we had a couple of tablespoons of sauce each and I ended up feeling just a wee bit ill. A cup of tea took care of that, but I’m going to have to work on my butter tolerance, as it appears I’m a bit of a lightweight in the beurre department.

Bon Appetit!

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!