How much did Proust know about madeleines?

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 11 2005 10:27 AM

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

How much did Proust know about madeleines?

Illustration by Lilia Levin. Click to expand.
The missing madeleine

Illustration by Lilia Levin

Marcel Proust's madeleine is the cliché cookie—a highbrow reference that's penetrated pop culture. (Take the Sopranos episode in which Tony's Proustian madeleine is a slice of cappicola.) The great French author put madeleines on the map, and probably in our mouths, too. We surely have him to thank for those little packages at every Starbucks checkout.

But Proust left out one important detail: the recipe. And no one ever asked him for it.

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Many cookbooks claim that you can reproduce Marcel Proust's magical madeleine in your own kitchen. But do any of the recipes yield the genuine article? I decided to reverse-engineer Proust's madeleine, using hints the author gives in Remembrance of Things Past, in an effort to find out.

In the renowned passage, the fleeting taste of this cake/cookie calls to life the world of the narrator's childhood in Belle Epoque France. For the attentive reader, the clues to The Recipe for The Madeleine are in the text:

She (Marcel's mother) sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell … 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 mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses …

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane …. and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.

What can we glean from this passage? Proust's madeleine was quite dry. It demanded not just a quick dunk, but immersion to "soften" it (according to the new translation by Lydia Davis, said to be the most accurate). And, you'll note, Marcel never bites the cookie. The memory surge is triggered by crumbs.

The Crumb Factor is the key to this culinary mystery. A close analysis of the text yields the following sequence: Marcel 1) breaks off and drops the morsel into the tea. 2) The madeleine piece then wholly or partially disintegrates during its immersion. 3) Marcel then fishes about with his spoon, yielding a spoonful of tea mixed with crumbs.

The question, then: What recipe would deliver this dry, extraordinary crumb-producer?

Modern food science gives clear guidelines. To make a cake less moist, you put in less moisture and less fat. That means less butter and fewer eggs. And less sugar, too. Sugar is "hygroscopic"—meaning it helps baked goods retain moisture—so you want to keep it to a minimum. Also high on the list of no-nos: resting the batter. Resting allows the flour to absorb the batter's liquid and results in a moister product.

Running through this list of Proustian baking "tips"—which reads more like a catalogue of baking "don'ts"—the great man's signature dish was beginning to sound less than appealing: a pathetic, parched product, not a buttery treat.

My criteria knocked many supposedly "authentic" recipes out of contention. In The Way To Cook, Julia Child touts hers as "presumably the true Madeleine from Commercy, the one Marcel Proust dipped in his tea." But she turns out to be an incorrigible batter rester. Not only that, she beats the flour into the egg and sugar mixture, a sure way to develop the flour's gluten and produce a denser, uncrumby madeleine.

Dining With Proust, a cookbook that re-creates dozens of dishes from Remembrance, is co-authored by Anne Borrel, founder of the Proust Museum in Illiers-Combray. But the book's recipe calls for resting the batter a full hour-and-a-half and, worst of all, includes honey, notorious for its hygroscopic properties.

I found two recipes that looked promising. In the Food Lover's Guide to Paris, French food expert Patricia Wells champions dry madeleines. "The best, freshest madeleine has a dry, almost dusty taste when eaten on its own," she tells us. Being soaked in tea is what brings it to life. The relatively low butter, sugar, and egg content in Wells' recipe gave me hope.

In The Making of a Cook, Madeleine Kamman traces her recipe's lineage back to the 18th century and maybe even to "Madeleine Paumier … the young girl who … presented the first known madeleines to King Louis XV of France." She is adamant that the flour be folded into the batter, not beaten, to avoid the dreaded gluten development. Neither a batter beater, nor a batter rester, she was my strongest candidate.

I pulled out my mother's old early-Julia Child-era imported madeleine molds and set to work.

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