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Not many people have read Proust, even if they quote the title as À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, rather than In Search of Lost Time. It’s long; and I mean LONG, seven volumes, each thick as a thief. It’s boring – there are no pictures or conversations; ‘and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?' But seriously, it is what the critics describe as ‘voluptuous prose’ at a ‘languid pace’: bo-RING to you and me.
Still, everyone knows about the madeleines, a bite of which revoked memories and took M. Proust back to when he first – or most memorably – tasted it. I don’t know which; I’ve not read it.
The literary association might suggest that the little cake is the wonder of wonders, the be-all and end-all of the pastry world – or maybe it’s just me who thought so? It isn’t; and wasn’t portrayed thus in the Lost Time (I’ve now read the relevant bit). The significance is philosophical: what constitutes a memory; and how taste or smell can trigger the magic of launching us immediately back into the past.
Still, the cookie is lovely – and don’t listen to the evil people who tell you it’s all right to make madeleines with whole eggs. Egg whites, butter, a little flour, almonds and honey – that’s what makes a meltingly sweet and tender biscuit.
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1
- Makes 12
- 130g (1 stick and 1 tbsp.) butter
- 100g (scant cup) icing sugar
- 40g (1/3 cup) ground almonds
- 40g (1/3 cup) plain flour
- a pinch of salt
- 3 large egg whites (120g)
- 2 tsp honey
- zest grated from ½ lemon
1. First, make the beurre noissette. It’s butter cooked to the stage between clarified and brown butter, when the particles of milk protein have dropped to the bottom and the butter smells nutty.
2. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Keep it sizzling for about 10 minutes, until you see the milk particles browning at the bottom of the pan. Strain it and keep aside.
3. Sift the flour, icing sugar and ground almonds into a bowl. Whisk in the egg whites with a hand whisk or a fork until combined. Whisk in the honey and the lemon zest. Add the beurre noisette (warm but not hot) and a pinch of salt and mix until well incorporated. Chill the mix covered with cling film for at least an hour.
4. In the meantime butter and flour each hole in the madeleine tray thoroughly and place it in the fridge as well, so that the coating sets better. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas 3.
5. Fill the moulds with the chilled mix just to the rims. Bake for 15-18 minutes until set and light brown around the edges. Cool in the tray for a couple of minutes, then pop them out and serve.