She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary 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 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. … Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. … But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
It’s probably impossible to talk about madeleines without mentioning Proust. I love to read Proust – I love his oddly beautiful language, and his meandering stories, which follow the logic of dreams and memories. The beginning of Swann’s Way is a childishly earnest testament to the power of his mother. He’s overcome with anxiety because his mother didn’t have a chance to kiss him goodnight. He frets and schemes, he sends her secret notes at the dinner table, he listens to her talking in the summer-night-warm garden through his window, he risks all by meeting her on the stairs, his heart pounding madly with terror and joy. And he’s rewarded with her presence as she reads him to sleep.
He describes the scene later as full of theater and drama, and as you read it you remember the vivid feelings of childhood. The keenness of your senses, the magical power of certain slants of light in particular places in certain times of day; the sharpness of your joys and fears. And you remember quieter scenes of your own. Small anxieties that kept you awake and seemed so awful and important, which some parental logic and a hug could remedy, and you remember small peculiar pleasure in a taste or a scent or a family ritual. As an adult you lose some of the vitality and immediacy of youth. Worries, responsibilities, expectations, and losses can make you feel tired and dull, as Proust’s narrator did on a dreary day. But this magical madeleine and tea, which he accepts while full of adult cares and woes, brings him such joy that he no longer feels mediocre, accidental, mortal, which is what being an adult feels like, on a bad day.
It’s the tea, as much as the cookie, that elicits this memory. He calls it a magical potion, and he searches his recollections for the source of its power – it’s the lime-flower tea that that his aunt drank, that she dipped her own madeleines in, decades ago, which brings it all to life. “… the waterlilies 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.”
This tea has always fascinated me! People frequently talk about the madeleine as a metaphor for something that conjures memories, but in actual fact it’s the flavor of the tea that holds more power. He calls it a tisane, which is an intriguing word, and I’ve always wondered what a “lime-flower” is. Well! It happens to be another word for linden flowers! The fragrance of linden flowers is one of the most beautiful and intoxicating that I can imagine–spring itself captured in a fragrance. When they first bloom in spring they can stop you in your tracks, and you just want to stand under the bright shifting bee-loud-leaves and breathe it all in. And, when made into a tea, they do seem to have almost magical powers of healing. They soothe and calm you, they help you sleep, they make you feel better when you’re not well. Mother-love in a small pale gorgeously-scented flower! It seems so perfect that they bloom for a short time in spring: a strong but fleeting scent that can recall a sweet and glowing time. “…after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
These cookies might not have quite those magical powers, but they do have a sweet subtle taste, not too floral, more mysterious and intriguing, livened by a bit of lemon zest. They are simple and quick to make.
The Recipe: Linden Tea Madeleines
10 T butter
1 t vanilla
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 t salt
zest of half a lemon
2 t linden tea (about 2 tea bags)
Preheat the oven to 375.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Let it boil a few minutes till it almost seems to be turning brown. Take it off the heat, let it cool a minute or two, and then stir rapidly as you add the butter in a thin stream to the batter.
Use the bit of butter left in the pan to treat the madeleine pan. Brush each shell with melted butter. Dust some flour in each one.
In a large bowl whip the eggs till they’re quite frothy. Add the sugar and vanilla, and keep whisking till it’s all nice and bright yellow and creamy/frothy. Add the flour, salt, lemon zest and linden tea, and stir till it’s all well-mixed ( I abandoned the whisk at this point, because the batter was too thick.)
Put one slightly rounded tablespoonful of batter in each shell. One nice rounded tablespoonful, right it the middle, will be perfect.
Cook for about 13 minutes, till it’s rounded and golden on the top, and the edges are just starting to brown and the top springs back when you touch it lightly. Let it cool a minute or two, and then very carefully use a knife to loosen it and take it out of the pan and transfer to a cooling rack. Fill the pan again once more – you should just have enough for two batches. Cook again the same way.
When they’re cool, dust them lightly with powdered sugar.
They’re even better once they cool. They’re nice dipped in tea or coffee.