Friday, October 12, 2012

Doing Proust Proud

"Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, 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," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, 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, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?" --from Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust

Though a lit major lo these many years ago, I was a lazy scholar who never really tackled Proust in a serious way. But his passage exalting the madeleine cookie did get my sensory antennae up. Thanks to my culinarily gifted mother, I've always been a foodie, and when I read that bit of Proust, I knew I had to find out what kind of cookies could inspire such writing. It was some years beforeI first tried a Madeleine, and I was disappointed because it tasted like nothing more than a miniature pound cake, heavy and boring. So, remembering the light and airy sponge cakes my mother used to make, I set out to create Madeleines the way I imagine they should be: light and airy on the inside, with the slightest hint of a crust. Downright ethereal. I decided that to achieve this, the eggs had to be separated and the whites beaten separately into peaks then folded into the batter at the end. Voila! The result was just as I'd anticipated. The really cool thing is that these days, there are nonstick madeleine molds. In the old days, it was almost impossible to remove cookies from the non-nonstick pans, and they lost their lovely shell shape. Now that I'm retired, I have the luxury of devoting an afternoon to baking Madeleines, eating them with a cup of jasmine tea, and enjoying a good book (not Proust). They are definitely to be savored fresh from the oven.

Magical Madeleines

¾ cup self-rising cake flour or use substitute*
½ cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs, separated
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
Pinch of salt (omit if using substitution)
1 tablespoon grated lemon (or orange) rind
1 tablespoon fresh lemon (or orange) juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two nonstick madeleine molds (each with a dozen capacity). Melt butter and allow to cool. In a small bowl, beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. In another bowl, beat sugar and egg yolks together until light in color (mixture will be crumbly at first, but will turn more runny). Fold in flour, salt, and lemon rind (this mixture will also remain crumbly for a while). Fold in cooled butter and juice. Fold in egg whites. Fill molds 2/3 ful and bake for about 9 minutes, or until they rise and are firm. They do not have to be brown on top. Let pan cool for a minute or two before removing the madeleines. Cool on rack. Yield: two dozen cookies.
*Substitute for cake flour:
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons regular flour
1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Options: Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Or, dip one-third of wide end in melted chocolate. Drizzle melted white chocolate over some of the cookies (both chocolate and bare portions). 
To melt chocolate: In a small bowl, microwave at 50% power for 1 minute. Stir. Microwave 30 seconds more or until chocolate is softened. Stir until smooth.

No comments: