Thursday, March 10, 2005

Madeleines:For the Love of Butter


I like butter. A lot. My parents tell me that as a small child I ate pats of butter right off the table when we went out to restaurants. It's a wonder I'm not morbidly obese. But can you blame me? After all, what tastes better than butter? One of the tastiest buttery treats is a madeleine. They were made famous by Marcel Proust in his novel Remembrance of Things Past. Translations are never quite the same as the original, but I'm sure you get the drift from this quote:

"I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched on my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses."

As much as I love them, madeleines can be a little infuriating, the more you try to figure them out, the more they confuse. Are madeleines cookies? cakes? And which side is the top, the fluted side or the rounded "belly"?

Since the 18th Century madeleines have been associated with the French town of Commercy. There was once a local convent in Commercy dedicated to St. Mary Magdelen, so that could be where the name comes from. Historians hypothesize that nuns sold their recipe to the bakers of the town when convents were abolished during the French Revolution. Yet another story says madeleines were invented during a feast given in Commercy by a young servant named Madeleine. The Dutch carried them on a pilgrimage to Spain in the 1700's (the shape was the symbol of the pilgrimage). Going back almost another 100 years, there are also various accounts of cakes being baked in aspic pans to test out the batter. The definitive origin of the madeleine remains a mystery.

I recently got a chance to try several kinds and brands of madeleines and I was particularly impressed with one in particular that is made here in the Bay Area--Donsuemor Madeleines.. The company prides itself on using all natural ingredients and no preservatives, but trying to learn more about the butter they used was a trade secret I could not get anyone to part with. Is it European butter? Domestic butter? Another mystery. The only thing I know for sure is the taste of butter, and it's in there.

You can find Donsuemor Madeleines at Trader Joe's, Peet's Coffee & Tea and at a large coffee chain with a mermaid for a logo. They are available in the traditional style, lemon flavored or chocolate dipped. Next year is the company's 30th anniversary and they expect to roll out one more flavor. In France madeleines come in many flavors--chocolate, spiced and even orange flower water so I'm guessing it might be one of those.

Whatever madeleine you choose, make sure it's tender and fresh, it should never be hard. Donsuemor actually recommends refreshing them in the oven which is not a bad idea. Eating a fresh madeleine you can enjoy what Donsuemor describes as the "madeleine moment". It's kind of like those old TV ads for Calgon where the harried housefrau would say "Calgon, take me away!" and suddenly there was a vision of a bathtub filled with bubbles and soft music in the background. Without getting naked, eating a madeleine can transport you. Just ask Proust.