A pastry chef reflects on taste, memory, and literature’s most famous confection.
Frances Leech | Longreads | May 2018 | 13 minutes (3,315 words)
I have friends in Paris who are now 4 and 6 years old. When I ring the doorbell at their apartment, I hear a clamor of footsteps and shouts of “Frances” and “Frances-madeleine” as they fight to open the latch, just within reach of small arms.
“What did you bring?” asks the boy, searching me for a telltale tin or box.
“Tu es une PATISSERIE,” says the girl: you’re a bakery, or a baked good. I do not correct her.
Then they remember: “bonjour,” “bonsoir,” a kiss on the cheek. They pull me away like tugboats to see their room. At one birthday party they kidnapped me so fast that the adults did not find me for half an hour. I was busy being dive-bombed by toddlers and pretending to be the wolf.
They are curious about many things: trains, love, my cat whom they have not yet met, all of the cooking that happens in their narrow kitchen. They know if they ask “what is it?” they will receive un petit bout: a morsel of chocolate or a scrap of herbed fat, something to test for themselves. Or someone tall will hoist the child up to watch bubbling sugar turn to caramel — from a safe distance — before chasing them out. “Go play with your kitchen!” They have a wide selection of plastic fruit, vegetables, pizza, cakes.
“What did you bring?”
This particular afternoon I only brought a pan. I showed it to them.
“Can you guess what we are making today? It begins with an M…”
“MACARONS!” The boy loves them, for their melting sweetness and array of colors. Whenever I make a butterfly or flower in pastel colors, I save one for him.
“No, it begins with an M and it’s also in my name.”
“No, that is maman. It looks like a shell but you can eat it.”
I find madeleines are often bland rather than exceptional, whether it’s the spongy ones in supermarket packets or the pâtisserie ones that are prettier than they taste. I’d rather dip a boring digestive biscuit in my tea and know what I am getting. I’d rather be named after an éclair. But I will make madeleines for these two French children. I can’t resist their big eyes and round cheeks, and neither can their local baker’s wife: she always slips them a chouquette or a little cake when their parents pop in to buy bread.Continue reading “Forgetting the Madeleine”