Friday, December 25, 2009

Proust was the O.G. Oprah

There's no doubt that the Madeleine owes its fancy-pants notoriety to Marcel Proust. Would this tiny cake fetch $2 apiece at coffee shops had he not tediously described the crumbs in his tea spoon? Nope. Would this masturbatory exercise in intellectual foodie smugness have been given space on Slate's servers if the Proust-Madeleine connection weren't so well known? Actually it's quite possible. Forget about that one...that's a bad example (and by the way, if following Julia Child's directions in preparing the molds by brushing with butter and flour, a certain amount of micro-crumbs are definitely present on the shell side after removal).

The publicity generated by Proust's 7-or-so paragraph Madeleine shout-out dwarfs any kind of hype generated for the favorite things of Oprah, undoubtedly the most influential person in media...and possibly the planet (Would sales of Anna Karenina in non-school bookstores have increased 100-fold had it not been for her book club? Nope. Would Jonathan Franzen have been exposed as a complete douche had it not been for Oprah's wisdom? Wait...another bad example. Doucheosity of that magnitude always manifests.)

Sometimes people ask me what I've cooked most in my lifetime. Recently I've come to realize that it's the Madeleine. I first made them for 8th-grade Francais avec Madame Windfuhr (my sister knew her as Frau Windfuhr...she taught both German and French). I really didn't know what I was getting into when I decided this was going to be my contribution to the class holiday party (I'm so glad I didn't decide to do a Bûche de Noël). This was in the infancy of my cooking ability, and I was unfamiliar with the concept of needing a shell-shaped pan to make a shell-shaped cake. So my first step was to acquire a pan, which involved telling my mom (likely three days before the day they were due) that I needed a Madeleine pan...and while she was at it, a recipe.

Two different recipes were used for the very first batch I made. One called for Amaretto and orange flower water. It was fussy and overly sweet. The other was Julia Child's recipe, requiring lemon zest and browned butter. I've come to realize now that any recipe that calls for liqueurs or ground up nuts etc. are probably doing so in order to avoid browning the butter. This was the first time I'd ever attempted browned butter, and it was under my mom's watchful eye. I suppose this is why I've never been too afraid to do it, as I distinctly remember the first instant when the butter darkened and gave off that unmistakably nutty aroma, then my mom telling me it was ready to come off the stove and into the ice bath.

After determining that Julia Child's recipe was the best (and that our oven at the time ran 50 degrees hot), I had plenty of opportunities to fine tune the method, as my mother's infatuation with the little French cake developed instantly. I've tried less labor-intensive ways of making the Madeleine pan nonstick (nothing worked as well as the original), including silicone molds (terrible). I've tried straining out the solids from the browned butter (not worth the effort), and dipping in chocolate (also not really worth the effort). I'd conservatively estimate that I've averaged two or three batches of Madeleines per year since the 8th grade. I've made far more packets of EasyMac and instant ramen, but nothing from scratch. Any time I needed to contribute something for a French class party, the Madeleine pan made an appearance. At one point in high school, I think I demonstrated how to make them en Francais ("et maintenant, faites la le beurre noisette"). Unfortunately, this knowledge did not help me on the AP test. Nowadays I couldn't use l'imparfait to save my life (Is it if my life were in a habitual state of danger in the past? If my life were in danger for an unspecified amount of time in the past? Both?), but I can make a pretty decent Madeleine.

I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to Proust, though let's face it...À la Recherche du Temps Perdu can be some pretty boring-ass shit. However, I can safely say that there is no possible way I would have known about Madeleines in junior high had it not been for him. The canelé and the macaron are also delicious French pastries, but I've only come to know about those recently. Maybe someday this blog will serve as my (rambling...sorry) memoir. I wonder what food item I will make famous. I suppose the chicken biscuit is what I've written about most lately. It certainly wouldn't be difficult to write a couple thousand words about my first chicken biscuit for (regrettably) it was only a couple years ago. That's why you shouldn't judge me for eating them so often. I'm simply trying to make up for temps perdu.

1 comment:

Erin said...

speaking of the chicken biscuit, we've yet to taste the final product...