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. 

Art objects in the home: the antique toast rack

The toast rack is truly a remarkable invention, if somewhat obscure these days.

Toast racks were developed in order to spare clever Britons the shame and ignominy of soggy toast. If any of you have ever been forced to vulgarly stack buttered toast on a plate then you are probably entirely too familiar with the inconvenience of damp toast. Horrors! Of course, the racks are entirely unnecessary, which contributes immensely to their snob appeal.

I’ve been in love with these clever gadgets for some time. Like sterling silver ice cream servers, they are the kinds of accessories that speak to a sort of rare and gentrified need for comfort that seems to be slowly dying.

Apparently the toast rack is not so entirely out of vogue that it doesn’t possess its own wikipedia entry (I checked) –though it’s rather sparse.

This lovely sterling silver rack is being auctioned by Dargate auction galleries for $500.

Lady of London Tea

My husband and I went for a walk this afternoon and stopped to have a cup of tea. There’s nothing like a hot cup of tea on a cold day!
I got hooked on tea when I was about eight years old, when my mother started taking me to visit the tearoom on Saturday afternoon after ballet class. We would sit in there and order high tea after chatting politely with the owner. I still remember that my favourite tea was “Lady of London.” The name of the tea alone sounded so romantic to me that I couldn’t wait to order it. I would sit up very straight and ask Mrs. Stevie (a charming elderly british womnan who worked at the tea room on Saturdays) in my very best British accent if we might please have some “Lady of London.” I was convinced that I always said it best after I’d already had some tea.

That experience alone probably condemned me to a lifelong appreciation for all things British. One thing’s for certain, it certainly engrained in me a deep love of tea.

Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure what tea “Lady of London” was. I think perhaps it was Lady Grey, from Twinings of London. I can’t be entirely sure.

I love Twinings tea, of course. For some time I’ve been quite the tea snob, so I prefer the loose leaves to bags. If you make them in a french press, they’re better for the environment! Harney and Sons is an amazing company out of the states that carries one of the widest varieties (if not the widest variety) of loose leaf teas on the planet. If you get the chance, try their apricot black tea–it’s to die for!