August 22, 2009

Proust's fictitious madeleine

For my 18th birthday, my sister presented me with one of her favorite books: Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. Unfortunately for her, my still-sophomoric self could not fully wrap its brain around Proust at the time, and it took me over a year to finish it. But even then I felt something make an impression on me when I came to the moment that everyone remembers from Proust: the madeleine that sends the protagonist on a tortuous trip down memory lane.
“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull 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, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”
--In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
Yet I don't think I like madeleines as much as I like the idea of madeleines. Dipping a bit into tea to cut the buttery, sugary richness "after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow" (ah, what magnificent prose!)...sure, I can swing with that. But I don't really enjoy eating them plain. Perhaps it is a French thing. Too elite for moi? Then again, with all the loose interpretations of madeleines out there, maybe I just haven't stumbled across an authentic Proust-y one yet.

That's not to say that these interpretations are never great pastries in themselves. A few weeks ago, I consumed a "madeleine" from Veniero's (an Italian bakery) that was much spongier than the madeleines I've had from Costco (what a cultural mecca, ha). I enjoyed it immensely.

Pictured above is The Adore's Japanese-French interpretation of a madeleine. Unfortunately, it was no more than a dry citrus pound cake masquerading itself in the shape of a madeleine, and not doing a very good job of it either. For the dollar it cost me, I could have bought something better at a Jack's 99 cent store. And that's just the truth.

P.S. According to this article, it's quite likely that Proust's madeleine was "quite dry" and might even be impossible to reproduce, based on crumb yield and informal experimentation.

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