Monday, November 17, 2008

In Search of Madeleines: Part 1 The Classics

~by guest writer AlbertCAN

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, illustration from, 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; recipes inspired by “Baking: From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan


  1. Lime-flower (or linden, or tilleul) has never ceased to be readily available in France (I've used it all my life and you can find it in any supermarket). British stores have stocked it too for a few years now (the Brits are late converts to herb teas). Can't you get it in Greece?

  2. Anonymous14:31

    linden tea is also easily available here in Scnadinavia! It's delicious to drink with a little bit of honey, and works really well when having a cold.
    The linden tree's blossoms smells delicious as well! :)

  3. Bela,

    we do have lime/tilleul in Greece and we call it "tilio" (TEE-lee-o), prescribed for babies to make them fall asleep easily (isn't this cute!)
    It's wonderfully aromatic, as you well know: the whole house smells divine when I make it.
    In fact tisanes are a very traditional Greek custom: we infuse and brew almost everything! LOL

    But Albert who came up with this piece can't easily get it across the pond and that's why he said "largely no longer readily available"; I presume thus hinting it's a regional availability thing.

  4. S,

    see my reply to Bela above.
    Glad to see we're all fans of the linden blossom tea. :-))

  5. Forgot to say that I think it was Schumman (or was it Schubert?) who had written a little lieder inspired by the linden tree (called "flamouria" in Greek) which my mother used to sing as a lullaby to me when I was little...*sigh*
    Let's see if I can find it on Youtube and I will post it if I do.

  6. Anonymous15:01

    This one? it is so beautiful! :) (and filled with age-old associations as a holy tree)
    Der Lindenbaum
    Am Brunnen vor dem Tore
    Da steht ein Lindenbaum;
    Ich träumt in seinem Schatten
    So manchen süßen Traum.

    Ich schnitt in seine Rinde
    So manches liebe Wort;
    Es zog in Freud' und Leide
    Zu ihm mich immer fort.

    Ich mußt' auch heute wandern
    Vorbei in tiefer Nacht,
    Da hab' ich noch im Dunkel
    Die Augen zugemacht.

    Und seine Zweige rauschten,
    Als riefen sie mir zu:
    Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
    Hier find'st du deine Ruh'!

    Die kalten Winde bliesen
    Mir grad ins Angesicht;
    Der Hut flog mir vom Kopfe,
    Ich wendete mich nicht.

    Nun bin ich manche Stunde
    Entfernt von jenem Ort,
    Und immer hör' ich's rauschen:
    Du fändest Ruhe dort!

  7. That's the one, S!
    It's beautiful indeed...I am devoting a post to it and some reminiscences then, up next :-)

  8. Anonymous18:44

    So glad linden blossom tisane is still available: it's actually not available in places I've lived so I might have to ask people to ship me a few boxes.

    Yes, the song was composed by Schubert (from the "Winterreise" song cycle, D. 911).

  9. Anonymous21:04

    Albert, thanks for this nice reminder that I really need to pull down my madeleine pan and make a batch of these delights. I confess I like some of the packaged brands as well; they are one of my favorite cake/cookies.

    Is lime-flower tea the same as linden? Lime-flower tea really sounds great and I'll have to look for some. I will say I'm not partial to jasmine but prefer my madeleines with a quality, milky black tea. For awhile I've been wanting to make some lavender-flavored madeleines; I also think they'd be delicious flavored with a hint of orange-flower water.

  10. Anonymous21:15

    Answered my own question... thanks for prompting me to learn my interesting fact of the day. Must find some linden tea now...

  11. I think I need a madeleine tin! what a beautiful thing.

    Looking forward to more on madeleines!

  12. Anonymous22:27


    Yes, I think we all need to be reminded of the wonderous things in life sometimes. To be quite honest I wouldn't have enjoyed the Proustian pleasure this much until Helg gave me a chance.

    Linden blossom tisane is a lovely thing--it's not really available where I live and unfortunately the extremely steep Canadian custom taxes aren't worth the trouble. But I'm sure I'll experience it again someday--and of course the memories will be unlocked when I taste it again.


  13. Anonymous22:32


    Thanks for the info: I'll try my luck when I visit the States in the near future.

    Interestingly enough, my late paternal grandfather was a tea snob, too. He had a thing for fine black the point of forbidding serving anything else in his abode! But he was a renowned tea specialist so we couldn't argue a thing--how could you argue with a man who did his post-graudate research on tea plants at the Tokyo University?


  14. Anonymous22:36


    Yes, madeleine pans are sights to took me years to assemble my collection but it was worth the effort! I have tried many varieties and the non-stick ones work pretty well, although I do grease the pan just in case.

    I'm in the middle of composing the second installment: it's proving to be very stimulating so hopefully I'm wrap up soon! I have tested three new ideas already so we'll see what's going to happen...


  15. Joe,

    glad you were stimulated into finding a new thing thanks to Perfume Shrine! :-)

  16. Natalie,

    lime-tree/linden is traditionally very much consumed around the Med, hence your father's insistence, I believe.

  17. Rose,

    it's a dangerous pitfall those cute kitchen utensils: have one and you crave more!
    Albert has interesting things in store for us in the near future ;-)

  18. I'm sorry, Albert, but it doesn't say anywhere that you're Canadian. Since lime-blossom tea is widely available in Europe and elsewhere, the addition of the words, 'where I live', wouldn't have triggered my reaction. :-)

  19. PS. I like your article, Albert, but I'm afraid I have one more quibble: as a literary translator myself, I would have appreciated seeing the name of Proust's translator mentioned. It was C K Scott-Moncrieff. Project Gutenberg is just the source; it really has nothing to do with it.

  20. I have the most amazing miele di tiglio (linden blossom honey) from Ticino. Delicioso!

  21. Bela,

    I am hypothesizing that Albert either didn't want to reveal he was in Canada or he assumed readers would guess it from the CAN besides his name (that's what I thought at least when he was a fellow reader elsewhere).

    As to crediting the translator, now you have, so thanks :-)
    I realise that translating Proust is something akin to Herculian feats.

  22. C,

    must be lovely :-)
    Now that you mention it, another interesting point: tiglio is the Italian name that has been borrowed in our language for the tisane itself, while the tree has another name (flamouria)

  23. Anonymous20:16

    yes, the latin name of the tree is tiglio.
    In Norse mythology is was together with the ash and oak the tree important holy trees. Ash of course the most important since Yggdrasil (the world-tree) was ash.
    A linden tree was thought to give protection against evil forces, and was associated with the goddess of fertility, Freya.
    The word lind/linden itself (in my language pronounced linn) is related to the latin tiglio, and is close to the word in Sanskrit (which I don´t recall at the moment)
    Ahh, I really am a lover of trees! :)

  24. Anonymous20:18

    linden was together with ash and oak the three holy trees, I meant to write..

  25. S,

    love the Norse mythology explanation (my knowledge is lacking compared to yours)!
    Tilia is the species name (from Latin of course), so it's all related. I think it's lata/latā in Sanskrit, but it's been a while since we leafed through that in the Uni, so don't take my word for it.

  26. I am late to the party, but wanted to say how nice it is to see AlbertCAN's writing, along with recipes, no less.

    I will leave you with another Linden-related song (well, this one explicitly about the Lindenduft, i.e. the fragrance of linden):

  27. I am late to the party, but wanted to say how nice it is to see AlbertCAN's writing, along with recipes, no less.

    I will leave you with another Linden-related song (well, this one explicitly about the Lindenduft, i.e. the fragrance of linden):

  28. J,

    welcome back!
    It was really great and gracious of A to assist me and write this excellent piece, wasn't it?
    Thank you for the delightful link :-))


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