Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The madeleine

I love living in California, specifically the East Bay. I spent the majority of my life here, and all the other places I've lived no matter how glamorous or interesting can't compare to the way my heart feels when I know I'm home. There is something warm and reassuring about living around the places I frequented in my youth. I love food also, obviously. Nothing will make me feel as good and comforted as one of my grandma's spicy dill pickles or my mom's tuna-less tuna noodle casserole (in fact, just noodle casserole, though the name sticks). It doesn't matter that the noodles are gushy and it's made with Campbell's cream of mushroom, or that the pickles are very lumpy and don't taste like anything you'd find in the supermarket today. They will always be the standard to which I judge pickles and casseroles, and the closer anyone comes to mimicking this imperfection the fuzzier I will feel inside. And that right there is one of the reasons I love food. In every family in every home people gather around the dinner table on a semi-regular basis (if not for holidays) and share their food and make traditions. Food facilitates some of our fondest memories and therefore it holds an extra power in our brains. Food, even in isolation, can unleash those memories and good feelings, consciously or without conscious effort

Today I am thinking about food and fuzzy memories because I translated my cousin Martine's madeleine recipe from French. This is the recipe she gave me after I spent a day at her house in the French countryside making and eating various treats. She boasts her madeleine's to be the best of anyone she knows. Having many French relatives is the reason my parents decided to enroll both me and my brother in French classes, instead of the ever-popular Spanish. And because of my long-time affinity for the French language I took a class on Proust my senior year of college (Proust, being the one who put madeleine's on the map! Linking them to what he calls involuntary memory). Therefore, whenever I see a madeleine I think of Proust and involuntary memory.

In Prousts novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, when the narrator eats his tea-soaked madeleine on the most ordinary of all days, the taste (not sight) takes him back to a time in his life he no longer thinks about. It is the moment where something as insignificant as a not-so-special cookie floods him with memories of his past that were near forgotten. It is literally a bite out of childhood. Let me quote the passage from the English translation:

...one day in winter, on my return home, my mother...offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called petites madeleines,”...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 had invaded my senses...And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory...And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray...when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime...And as soon as I had recognized the taste...the whole of Combray and its surroundings...sprang into being...”(48-51)

Mind you Proust says nothing in such concision, and he probably goes on about madeleine's for 50 pages or so (maybe I'm exaggerating a little). I just took the heart, cropped from 4 pages. But even with that you can close your eyes and imagine how the scene went down. Or better yet you can feel it someday, unexpectedly, when you make your mom's casserole or spoon out some canned peaches. However, to give you an idea I am providing you with this similar clip from Ratatouille! It is the scene where Ego, the pretentious critic, dines at Gusteau's restaurant to update his critique, ahem review... (watch the first minute): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDK2azVSE5Q

Ego, the snob of all snobs, is humbled by a modest portion of rataouille. This scene, like Proust's famous madeleine, reminds us of the importance of food, beyond sustenance, as a symbol and function of our identities. Food connects us to our past, our community, and our family. And it makes us feel warm and fuzzy, accordingly.

For 16 madeleines: 
2 big eggs
130g flour + 5-6g baking powder
130g sugar
130g salted butter

1. Melt/soften butter and let cool.
2. In a bowl – beat eggs with a wisk, add the flour + baking powder, and the sugar. Mix all quickly.
3. Once the dough is smooth, mix in the butter.
4. Put a spoon of dough in each madeleine mold, buttered and floured if necessary. Put them in the middle of the oven, at 270C (518F) for 4 minutes, and lower the temperature to 210C (410F) and let cook another 4 minutes. (The cooking time may vary depending on how big your madeleine molds are).
5. Unmold quickly.

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