Proust references abound in the food blogosphere. His infamous ode to the simple madeleine is a much-revered quote to many a food writer, chef, and fellow fans of the classic tea cake. I haven’t read Remembrance of Things Past (just the bit about madeleines) so I won’t pretend to comprehend the story as a whole. But, the idea that the simplest tastes and smells can trigger the most heartbreaking nostalgia is one I stand solidly behind.
Sweetened, shredded coconut means seven-layer bars at my Grandma’s house in Indiana. The way onion-smell lingers on skin hours after chopping is how my dad would smell after working on the line all night. Ritz crackers are sick days spent watching movies. Memories of childhood favorites, dishes prepared in good times and bad, meals shared with favorite people; to recall these moments one has only to inhale deeply or taste carefully.
Now, I’ve never made madeleines before this. I have no memories brought to tearful light by the light crunch and fragrant flavor of these cookie/cakes. In fact, the only time I can recall eating them was during a brief stint as a glorified bus girl at a fancy bed-and-breakfast. We served mini-madeleines to each guest when the check arrived. I vaguely remember scarfing a tiny cake or two during dinner rushes, but that’s about it. They didn’t leave much of an impression.
However, while pulling my madeleine pan down from the pantry’s top shelf I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of my last birthday. There was a surprise party, a fantastic cake, homemade pizza that tasted just like my favorite pizzeria’s, and lots of dancing with lots of great people. And, to top it all off, my beautiful and amazing friend Magda gave me the aforementioned madeleine pan. I’m sure she scavenged it from some magical thrift store deep in the heart of Brooklyn, and I can imagine her big, blue eyes lighting up when she discovered it. She probably jumped for a joy a little bit, looked around hoping that a stranger might share in her happiness. That’s the kind of person Magda is; so thrilled by the little victories of life.
Right now she’s off on an art adventure in the Czech Republic. Making beautiful, messy, amazing things is what Magda does best, and I’m so proud of her for being able to do so. I just wish that she were here right now so that I could pour her a cup of coffee and give her one of these sweet, perfumed little cakes and tell her that she’s my favorite. I guess the next best thing is to dedicate this recipe to her and her impressive thrift-store hunting skills. Thanks, Mags. When you get back, I promise there will be more madeleines.
1 large egg
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated grapefruit peel
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
5 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
Preheat oven to 375°. Butter and flour a pan for large madeleines. Using your fingers, rub grated peel into sugar to combine. Combine sugar and egg and beat until just combined. Beat in vanilla and salt. Add flour, beating until just blended. Slowly add melted butter, beating constantly, until combined. Spoon one tablespoon of batter into each indentation in pan. Bake until puffy and golden-brown, about 16 minutes. Let cool in pan about five minutes. Gently remove from pan and dust with powdered sugar.