It’s nearly Easter and yet this morning, a fine layer of snow- like a dusting of icing sugar- covered the rooftops of Praha.
“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 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 had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Breaking the rules completely with this very first post, the madeleine is neither central nor eastern European in origin. And yet this humble, seashell-shaped cake from the Lorraine region of France does serve as a jumping off point of sorts.
Depicting Proust’s own nostalgia, a trigger of involuntary memory, the Madeleine can be something different for us all: sharp creamy chicken paprikash, summer fruit dumplings bursting with mouth puckering apricots, even the dreaded breaded Christmas carp and the slightly less odious- but no less distressing carp soup.
And isn’t all of this cooking and eating in effect an exercise in nostalgia? I think that most immigrants share a need to recreate home with simmering pots and familiar smells, and while my earliest days in Canada are a blur of confusing kindergarten songs and cultural missteps, I vividly remember mealtimes (whether I enjoyed them or not!) as my Mum tried to improvise and recreate home with strange, foreign ingredients from strange, foreign supermarket shelves.
These small cakes are extremely quick and easy to make. They go well with coffee and guests.
3/4 cup (105 grams) all-purpose flour- hladká mouka works best in ČR
2 large eggs- room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar (cukr krupice)
Grated zest of one orange
2 teaspoons vanilla extract*
5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces; 70 grams) melted, cooled unsalted butter
1. Whisk eggs and sugar together until they thicken and lighten in color- making sure to incorporate a lot of air. This should take about 3 min.
2. Whisk in the zest and vanilla and carefully fold in flour. Stir in the cooled melted butter and cover and chill batter for 1-3 hours (can keep up to 2 days).
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) and grease your Madeleine tray with butter, dust with flour, and shake out the excess.
4. Fill your tray with batter (about a tablespoon per mold) and bake in the centre of the overn for 11-13 minutes. The finished madeleins should still be soft, pinkish in colour and have that characteristic bump in the centre.
5. Gently remove madeleines with a fork and allow to cool on a rack or plate. Dust generously with icing sugar while still hot as this will make a nice crust. If you are making more than just one tray of the cakes, be sure to thoroughly clean and dry the pan in between each batch.
* M&S sell real vanilla extract, otherwise many of the supermarkets sell entire vanilla beans. Cut these lengthwise and scrape out the black seedy paste- you can use this paste in place of the extract.
** You may find that a pinch of baking powder or soda sifted into the flour at the start gives you a fluffier cake. I personally don’t think it’s necessary if you whisk the eggs well enough.
*** Madeleine trays are notoriously hard to come by in Praha but your Grandma may have those little forms for making pracny at Christmas, and these work just as well. Just make sure to keep them upright to prevent spilling!