Forgetting the Madeleine

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.”

“MARIE!”

“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.

In reality, I was named for two grandmothers: Jenny Frances and Lucy Madeleine. However, when I introduce myself at baking classes, I lie.

“My parents named me after the most famous pastry in French literature.”

It is a good name for a pâtissier, a pastry chef, and a good story to tell. The mnemonic sticks in my students’ minds, and after three hours and four cakes made together, they remember me as Madeleine and not Frances. Stories make for powerful anchors, even when the truth is twisted for dramatic effect.

For those that don’t know, I tell them about Marcel Proust and the madeleine dipped in tilleul tea that reminds the narrator of his aunt Léonie and evokes well over a million words about his past. The passage, near the beginning of Proust’s epic A la recherche du temps perdu, has become a shorthand for taste memories. It is hard to write about food without alluding at some point to his madeleine as the magic wand that conjures a past time and place.

We are good at remembering first lines in books, beginnings, frames. The finer details remain blurry.

We read Proust’s first volume at university. Our professor told us that for her dissertation, she had spent two weeks on the first line alone, “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure…” which I hesitate to translate as “for a long while, I went to bed early.” I know there is more nuance to it than that, but all I remember is that first line and two more blurred images from the narrator’s childhood: the asparagus the pregnant maid was forced to peel as a kind of punishment, and the hawthorn bush that symbolized sexual awakening. Or lust? Infidelity? My professor would be less than impressed at my recollection, especially if she knew I preferred the Monty Python “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” skit:

“Swann, Swann. And, and there’s a house! And a man, what’s his name? Just said it, Swann!” (And the gong sounds.)

The problem with the signposts in the maps in our minds is that they are often faulty. They point back to a place without guiding any further along the path. We are good at remembering first lines in books, beginnings, frames. The finer details remain blurry. When we tell stories, we place a new frame on a faded image, connecting disparate moments into a joined-up line.

* * *

I met the girl when she was only a few months old, able to roll but not yet to sit up. She wriggled and rolled on the floor while above, at the table, I rolled pickled grape leaves into cigars. It was the first meeting of a new cooking club made up of three women: me, an American, and a French woman with her baby. I knew the American well enough, but felt shy faced with the keen blue eyes and breadth of knowledge of this new person. I was shy of the baby, too, a whole human being in miniature size. Our conversation in the kitchen was hesitant, asking initial questions as we seasoned the bulgur wheat and chopped the tomatoes. Then we sat down to wrap the leaves around the filling, and as we got the hang of it, eyes on the task in front of us, words flowed. The baby girl on the floor said nothing, determined to turn herself over onto her stomach. I left with a box of grape leaves, stuffed with feta and olive and mint. Looking back now, I can see that afternoon formed the beginning of a friendship and gave a name to our nascent group, the Grape Leaf Club.

The girl is now old enough to ask, “how old is your cat?” and “is three an adult?” and “when will I be an adult?” She is a bit like a human cat herself. She is very happy with her own company, and will come for a hug when she feels like it, not before. Her brother is the other side to her coin, and has a flair for inventing recipes. To the question, “what did you do at school today?” he will answer, “I took a night train to Copenhagen, made a lot of coffee, and had calamari with tomatoes and polenta.” He has his mother’s eyes. I have a separate friendship with their mother, knit together with a shared love of maps and bikes and words. Their mother would certainly not define herself as a mother first and foremost, but for the purposes of this tale, the girl and the boy are my two main characters, my Hansel and Gretel. It follows that I must be the witch, leading them astray with pastries.

On the day we baked madeleines together, I weighed out a bowl of sugar and one of flour with baking powder. And in a non-traditional step, I let the melting butter bubble and hiss until it formed beurre noisette, where the milk solids caramelize to the color and smell of toasted hazelnuts. It is not part of the traditional madeleine recipe, but I do it for the pleasure of leaning over and inhaling the heady scent. It disperses through the whole apartment, and is worth the extra five minutes by the saucepan.

The boy and the girl each cracked an egg (one of which went onto the table, but was quickly swept into the bowl) and mixed it into the sugar, both hands on the whisk. In went the flour, then the dough was loosened with a splash of milk. Then the browned butter — one last sniff! — at which point an extra adult hand helped bring it all together. Each scooped exactly two shells of batter into the madeleine pan, and decorated the top with nuts and chocolate pieces and raisins.

The tray came out of the oven in time to eat while watching the stop-motion film Gena the Crocodile. It is a Russian animated series about friendship and loneliness; about confidence, practice, and learning. Gena spends his days at the zoo as the resident Crocodile, then clocks out in the evening, puts on his hat, and goes home to his empty house. In town, the greengrocer finds a fuzzy, marmot-like creature with elephantine ears in a crate of oranges. This is Cheburashka, and nobody knows who or what he is. Eventually he makes friends with the dapper crocodile, and they go on adventures together. Their antagonist is a witch-like character: an old woman with a pointed nose, who dresses in black and is accompanied by a ferret on a leash. She seems to be wicked mostly out of boredom. The madeleines disappeared as we laughed at the animals’ antics, sympathizing as friends came and went.

Who knows what the boy and girl will remember? We all forget more than we can ever keep hold of. We can’t know yet if the smell of beurre noisette or the sheen of butter on their fingertips will remind them of an afternoon in their first apartment, or something else entirely.

In fairytales, food is often the drug that leads protagonists to getting lost, if not to total amnesia. Think about Hansel and Gretel: they were tricked first by the disappearance of their breadcrumbs, then by the sugared walls of the witch’s gingerbread house. In Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, a little girl and her parents pause the car journey to their new home to explore an abandoned amusement park. The parents are distracted by a magical buffet and upon gorging themselves, they turn into pigs. All the way back in Homer’s Odyssey, Circe changes Odysseus’s crew into swine when they partake of an enchanted feast.

When a witch does not trick us with the promise of sweets, we trick ourselves. Proust made it seem too clean-cut: find the madeleine, watch as the past unfurls. But time may have tangled the pathways in our minds and swept away the breadcrumbs. Une gourmandise, by Muriel Barbery, is the counterpoint to A la recherche du temps perdu. The main character is a dying food critic; he is searching for the one taste that will transport him back to the happiest moment in his life. He can feel the sensation just out of his reach — not on the tip of his tongue — and so works backwards through the various, spectacular meals that left a mark on his life, ending up at something so banal it is an insult to his sense of self. (I won’t spoil it.) Halfway down memory lane, the critic considers a traditional answer. At a French restaurant, after a succession of desserts akin to a religious experience, a “honeyed psalm,” his meal ends with “des madeleines aux fèves Tonka ou de l’art du raccourci cavalier.” He doesn’t need to describe them further: the madeleines, “flavored with Tonka bean,” are “a bold shortcut” on the part of the chef, as well as on the part of the writer. Barbery knows that the reader knows both what the pastry tastes like, and what it represents in literature. It is a red herring, not the end of the critic’s quest. He remains lost in his recollections, looking for signs.

I don’t think Proust ever intended to elevate the madeleine to the heights of French pâtisserie. He demonstrated instead the power of memory and nostalgia to magnify and brighten our past — even to trick us.

In Proust’s initial drafts, the madeleine was not a madeleine either. It was a piece of toast, then a dry biscuit, and only evolved into the shell-shaped cake in later versions. (This confirms my own personal prejudice: madeleines are just not very delicious if they are analogous to dry toast.) Madeleines become crisp and stale after a day, even after a few hours, and need to be resurrected by a quick dip in a hot beverage. Straight from the oven, they are buttery and delicate, with a soft centre hidden under their shell. Then their glory fades, and the butter soaks into their paper bag and leaves a translucent print of yesterday. It is not the cake itself that acts as a trigger, it is the act of dipping it into tea to soften it up.

I don’t think Proust ever intended to elevate the madeleine to the heights of French pâtisserie. He demonstrated instead the power of memory and nostalgia to magnify and brighten our past — even to trick us. Memory gilds an ordinary snack, turning it into something other. Memory shines a spotlight on a nondescript, gray day, one that with hindsight will become a beginning or an ending.

Last year, the boy and the girl set off on a Grand Voyage with their parents. They went away for six months, half a lifetime when you are small. They began in Paris, took the train through Poland and then across Russia in various sleeper compartments. Then they flew down to Korea, Japan, and China, and took more trains around most of Southeast Asia, ending in Singapore. I followed their journey by sticking pins into the map on my wall that comes from a mid-century French classroom. Some of the countries pictured — Indochina, for one — no longer exist. I wound red wool from pin to pin to make an uneven line an arm-span long. It helped to keep track of them in my mind, even if it wasn’t far compared to the thousands of kilometres they were covering.

I wondered how much they would have grown and if they would remember me when they got back. I missed their presence, their wonder, their questions. From their updates, it sounded like a trip punctuated by dumplings in all different languages. When questioned, the children remember hot chilis, all the different kinds of trains, and elephants seen first as statues and then in real life around Cambodian temples. They think that other little children in faraway playgrounds speak nonsense but are still fun to play with. The boy clearly remembers a sausage in a bun, eaten while perched in a tramway shelter, watching the trams go past in Düsseldorf. It was his favourite meal of the trip, and also his first meal, proving my theory that we are good at remembering gateways.

Somewhere in rural Hokkaido, their mother found a fairytale bakery in the woods, and sent me a photo of it so that I now have an imagined memory of it too. It was surrounded by trees, down a grassy path. Inside, one woman laid out an array of cakes and pastries once she had finished baking them, and closed up shop when they had all been eaten. Customers sat outside to devour their treats and then went back in for more, which would normally be considered greedy in Japan. The rules seemed to be different here. I asked if the bakery was a mirage — an illusion of color and abundance drawn up by Studio Ghibli, one that would later float away to a new location or a new century. But no, they went back the next day to check. It was still there. It had already been hard to find, since the map they’d picked up at the local tourist office was hand-drawn, illustrated, and charmingly not-to-scale.

I wonder if these evocative notes can be worn out through overuse; if, over time, they will summon the act of remembering instead of the memory itself.

The family brought me a collection of these town maps as souvenirs: some are community efforts, made by inhabitants that each drew a picture of their favourite café or viewpoint. Some are more polished in style. None of them are totally accurate: distances are suggestions, with the number of streets between one crossroads and another chosen at random. Following these maps to the letter led to frustration: the only way was to wander with the idea of a destination in mind. The maps might as well have been drawn by grandparents who hadn’t returned to their native town in two generations but wanted their descendants to find that one little corner shop, the garden where, a junction at which.

When my friends did arrive at the bakery, almost by accident, the menu was also drawn out by hand, and equally unreliable, since the owner-baker-sprite made some or all or none of the pastries depending on her mood. I have a copy of it, black-and-white pen lines folded in a concertina of possibilities. There are circles and ovals and croissant shapes, sticks that could be baguettes, and squares that could be loaves. At the top is written something like “Various Breads and Vegetable Children” according to my younger brother and translator. On the front is a woodcut print of an animal in a hat, pulling a steaming dish out of a brick oven. Mē-mē Bēkari, says the katakana script above, which means the creature must be a sheep. Baa-baa Bakery, have you any bread? The sheep appears again in a corner of the menu, in a frilly apron, cautioning customers to please phone up and… My translator runs out of vocabulary. Is the sheep-baker the fairy godmother or the witch in this story?

In Spirited Away, Chihiro escapes the curse that transforms her parents and runs away into another illusion, a bathhouse full of fairytale creatures. There are little spidery soot-sprites that look like ink blots, and whose job is to fire the furnace; an evil witch with a head like a nodding dog; all kinds of human-animal combinations; and No-Face, an embodied shadow that floats and grows, vaguely threatening but also blank. There is a mystery-train journey as well, not dissimilar to my boy and girl’s adventures. Chihiro could easily have happened upon the sheep’s bakery my friends found, sought refuge there, and learned to make baguettes. Instead she escapes back into her own world, in which no time has passed. Her adventure was circular and took place in another dimension, but was no less real for it. It’s the kind of storytelling that closely mirrors the distortion of our dreams, of our memories.

We may or may not have control over how we find the way home again. Some of the crumbs disappear. Sometimes an old signpost pops up again with a certain scent, or with a piece of music. The signpost that reoccurs most often for me is the smell of lemon zest, almost fizzy in its direct attack on my nostrils. I wonder if these evocative notes can be worn out through overuse; if, over time, they will summon the act of remembering instead of the memory itself.

* * *

This boy and girl did find their way home in the end. Back in Paris, the girl was overheard narrating a story to herself as she leafed through a cookbook: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, full of bright greens, appetizing yellows and reds. The boy said it looked like “travel food” in a disapproving tone. He ate it without complaining while on his Grand Voyage, but at home… Everything in its place, and in its time.

Now on my mental map, madeleines also have a line connected to Russia, to the afternoon spent watching Cheburashka with these children and devouring the little cakes. I have known the boy and the girl long enough that they are suspended in virtual memory-threads, red wool tying them to a Japanese bakery, to a sofa in Paris where we squashed in together. We propped each other up like bookends, each of us with a book of our own, the girl muttering her story under her breath. I had tea; they had hot chocolate they were careful not to spill. Their mother read in her armchair. The madeleines were just a pretext, a flag to find my way back to that afternoon.

* * *

All illustrations by Frances Leech.

Frances Leech is a baker and writer who lives in Paris. She is the witch in her own story. Find more stories and recipes at Tangerine Drawings and a miniature culinary guide to Paris at A Pocket Feast.

Editor: Ben Huberman