What an interesting lot fragrance writers are, we chase after the perfect expression, the luminous declaration that can somehow make the intricate olfactory monsoon utterable. More offten than not we all try to crystallize the fleeting, unexpected, momentary rapture in time that can stay dormant for decades, only to be silently detonated in our cognition years later when we reacquaint with our old sensory fling. It does not help, however, that the collective human experience has, by and large, left us relatively few links between our sense of smell and language. When writers propose words such as florid, verdant, spicy, saccharine, we all are in fact connecting our experience with other things (flowers, greens, spices, sugar), thus defining one smell by another smell or another sense. Smells are our partners in crime, but we cannot speak of their true identities—instead, we can only reflect our feelings, thus proclaiming scents to be “transcendent”, “nauseating”, or “mesmerizing”.
Do we, therefore, perceive smells as indirectly as we describe it? Absolutely not: we literally become one with the aromatic molecules when we perceive them. In fact, it is the olfactory-verbal gap that prevents most of us from sharing our various sensory encounters. Perhaps it is exactly this inability that encourages us to appreciate literary gems that immortalize, as Shakespeare put it, the “suppliance of a minute”. The epitome of such eloquence, or as Chandler Burr once wrote, “our touchstone for the power of smell over memory”, would be Marcel Proust’s passage on petit madeleines in “Swann’s Way” (from the first volume of “Remembrance of Things Past”). Here’s the translated passage from Project Gutenberg. I have here also included a comical representation of the section by Stephané Heuet.
"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, as I came 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 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. 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. The tea has called up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeat indefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day. [...]
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. 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 interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. "
Although I am saddened to report that lime-flower tea is largely no longer readily available nowadays, the heritage of baking madeleines at households still marches on. One clarification is required, however: while it's Proust who gets all the credit for making madeleines a household name, the origin of the name traces back to King Stanislas Leszczynski of Poland (October 20, 1677 – February 23, 1766), who, in the eighteenth century, tasted a tea cake made by a local in Commercy, France. He was so delighted with the cookie that he named it after the baker, Madeleine.
Culinary-wise the traditional madeleine is a cookie made from a sponge cake batter. While the batter gives the delicacy airiness and texture, while the tiny-bubbled crumb is très raffiné, the traditional madeleine also soaks up moisture rather quickly, resulting in a wan, soggy mess once left in room temperature for more than 24 hours. Fortunately, madeleine rewards patience, as its flavour can only be properly developed if the batter is properly chilled; therefore, you should plan ahead—bake them when you are ready to eat them! Besides, the delicate combination of lemon, vanilla and butter is so relaxing that perhaps it is more sane to reject the classic altogether. With this in mind I have an excellent recipe inspired by “Baking: From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan.
(NOTE: Madeleine performs best if the batter is properly refrigerated. The long chilling period will help the batter form its characteristic bump; 4 hours of refrigeration will suffice if one wishes not to witness the traditional protruded back—or simply in a hurry to devour the delicacy.)
Traditional Madeleines Recipe
Using madeleine cookie moulds, either in regular or miniature size, is best for this recipe. When baking multiple batches I prefer working with a pair of identical madeleine moulds at the same time so each tray can properly cool between each batch. I got my moulds from Williams-Sonoma but offerings from your local cookware store will largely suffice. (This recipe makes 12 large or 36 mini cookies)
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
½ cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
(Optional: confectioners' sugar, for dusting)Metric convertion table here.
1.In a clean bowl whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
2.In a separate large bowl combine sugar and lemon zest. Rub the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the eggs to the bowl. Working with the whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together on medium-high speed until pale, thick and light, about 2-3 minutes. Thoroughly blend in the vanilla extract.
3.With a rubber spatula, very gently fold in the dry ingredients, followed by the melted butter.(short instruction video)
4.Gently press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and refrigerate it for at least 4 hours, or for up to 2 days.
5.About 20 minutes prior to baking centre a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F or 375F if you want to play it safe. See this chart for temp convertions
6.Prepare the moulds:
•If you are working with regular madeleine moulds, butter 12 full-size madeleine moulds, or up to 36 mini madeleine moulds. Dust the insides with flour and tap out the excess.
•If you have nonstick moulds, a light even coating of vegetable cooking spray will suffice.
•If you have a silicone pan no prep is needed.
7.Spoon the batter into the moulds, filling each one almost to the top. Do not worry about spreading the batter evenly. (Do not overfill the mould.) Bake large madeleines for 11 to 13 minutes, and minis for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are golden and the tops spring back when touched. NOTE: Keep an eye during baking as the fluted edges might get scortched easily.
8.Remove the pan(s) from the oven and allow the cookies to cool slightly before releasing the madeleines from the moulds. To separate the cookies, gently tap the edge of the pan against the counter and carefully pry the madeleines from the pan. Transfer the cookies onto a cooling rack—do not stack individual cookies on top of each other within an individual rack. Cool before serving or storing the cookies.
9.Repeat steps 6-7 (with a cold cookie pan) if you have extra batter at hand. If you wish to make additional cookies at this point repeat steps 1-7.
Serving: Serve the cookies as is when they are only slightly warm or when they reach room temperature.
Alternatively, if you prefer dusting the cookies with confectioners’ sugar before serving you must cool the cookies to room temperature before dusting. To dust the cookies, simply fill a baking sieve with a few spoonfuls of icing sugar: place the sieve directly above the cookies and gently, either with your fingers or with a spoon, tap the rim of the sieve until the cookies are evenly coated with sugar.
I prefer serving the madeleines with premium jasmine green tea, probably the next best thing to Proust’s lime-blossom tisane. Alternatively, these cookies can be served with espresso. I have been told that madeleines pair very well with Tokaji or Sauternes, although since my body doesn’t readily metabolize alcohol I cannot elaborate further. (I get rashes when I drink a glass too much. Strangely enough, I get no side effect when using alcohol-based fragrances...)
Storing: Although the batter can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, the madeleines are best to be eaten soon after they are made. You can keep them overnight in a sealed container, but they really are best eaten on the first day. If you must store them, wrap them airtight and freeze—they will last for up to 2 months.
With this in mind we shall conclude the first section: in the next section I shall cover the modern variants. If you prefer provoking Proust—stay tuned! Many thanks to Helg for making this post possible.
Photos: Madeleine from Flickr.com, illustration from ReadingProust.com, pan from Choos & Chews. Sources: “A Natural History of the Senses” by Diane Ackerman; The Project Gutenberg EBook of Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust; Illustration by Stephané Heuet; C.Burr’s quote from BaseNotes.net; recipes inspired by “Baking: From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan