Over a year ago, I decided to take part in a postgraduate conference on Proust: my paper got accepted, and I was pleased yet rather nervous about it, as this was really out of my ‘comfort zone’, me being by no means a French Literature expert. In order to better prepare me for this conference, my mother bought me a madeleine mould as a present —a great gift indeed—, and instead of worrying about the conference, Proust, and my paper, as most of my friends can imagine, I started baking madeleines frenziedly, in an attempt at mastering the art of making this rather simple, yet sublime sweet. And so, sweet madeleines and savoury madeleines (yes, they exist!) would came out of my oven and crowd my kitchen, to be then distributed amongst various friends and family members: green, matcha-flavoured madeleines; amber-coloured, honey and cardamom madeleines; dark-tinged, chocolate and hazelnut madeleines; pale, almond and ricotta ones…
Did this improve my understanding of Proust? Maybe. When we first studied Proust in school, my literature teacher told us, quite simply, that adult Marcel was dunking a biscuit in his tea, which made him remember things from his childhood, and that was the start of his narrations, ‘in search of lost time’. And so, the beginning of twentieth-century literature as studied in school appeared to me marked by one French person dunking a biscuit – fantastic. When I then decided to tackle the giant Proustian oeuvre by myself, years later, I was surprised to find out my teacher had lied about the biscuits – because in the notorious scene Proust is not eating a simple biscuit, but rather precisely a madeleine – which of course has given literature scholars more to think about than a biscuit would have. I was even more surprised to realize that as a child Proust was probably not even drinking tea with it, but rather ‘tilleul’, a herbal tea made with lime (or linden-tree) flowers, more suitable to children. The whole scene was suddenly changing before the eyes of my memory, with different colours, textures, and flavours.
The prolonged madeleine scene is situated in the ‘Overture’ of the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time — Swann’s Way (1913), and begins with a cold, adult Marcel, who is offered tea and madeleines by his mother (‘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.’), tasting a morsel of the madeleine cake soaked in tea:
‘An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, 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 myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself.’
Marcel is suddenly taken back to the time of his childhood where his aunt Léonie, in their Combray house, would offer him lime-flower tea together with madeleines: ‘suddenly the memory returns’, and savouring the taste of the madeleine in his mouth, Marcel is able to evoke ‘the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from [his] cup of tea.’ It is indeed almost as if Marcel were drinking some kind of magical potion, which can conjure up the past before his eyes with vivid clarity, as well as his past feelings, together with the ‘unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense that it was a happy, that it was a real state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished.’ The memory is revived, not so much by the sight and beauty of the madeleine’s shape, but rather, Proust stresses, by the sense of tasting and touching these cakes, with their distinctive sensuality of curves, deep lines and hidden cavities, and their moist warmth when imbibed with soothing, sleep-inducing and almost hypnotic lime-flower tea, which makes him reach places of the mind that he had never thought he could experience before. A simple biscuit just could not have reminded us of the fact that (borrowing W. H. Auden’s much later words)—
‘[…] though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was.’
Madeleines (makes about 24, also depends on your type of madeleine mould)
150g slightly salted butter (melted)
2 tablespoons of honey
zest of ½ unwaxed lemon
150g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
- Melt the slightly salted butter with honey in a saucepan.
- Wash the unwaxed lemon and zest half of it.
- Sieve flour and baking powder together.
- Whisk eggs and sugar together in a large bowl, until the batter gets a foamy texture.
- Add flour and baking powder to the batter, then the lemon zest and the mixture of butter and honey, until it is smooth and even.
- Place the bowl with the batter in the fridge for at least an hour and place the empty, greased madeleine mould (which is necessary for the madeleines to have their unique shape) in the freezer for at least half an hour. This is absolutely mandatory for the madeleines to grow their unique ‘bump’ when baking in the oven.
- Preheat the oven at 270°C (alternatively 250°C is also OK, if your oven cannot reach such a high temperature), grease the icy madeleine mould and pour in the batter.
- Bake in the oven for 4 minutes, then turn the oven down to 210°C and continue baking for another 4-6 minutes, until golden.
- Take the madeleines out of the mould, and leave to cool.
- Enjoy with a cup of tea, or ‘tilleul’!
Auden, Wystan Hugh. ‘Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno’. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Pantaleoni, Lucia. Madeleines. Milan: Guido Tommasi, 2009.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff. Available online at eBooks@Adelaide.