Monday, November 14, 2005

Don't Cry for Me, Commercy

Through a series of events at once unlikely and unremarkable, I came to be standing in my kitchen today, staring into the bowl of my Kitchenaid mixer, when I was struck with the realization that I will probably never read all of Proust. Most readers will likely not have to wait for the recipe to figure out what I was baking that set me to thinking about M. Proust. I suppose that it's fitting that this particular preparation set me off on a mental journey, and I further suppose that in most senses, I'm lucky that it ended up with a short, sad recognition of literary shortcoming rather than seven volumes of, let's face it, dense prose. (I am making an assumption here. I have only read Swann's Way and a short bit of volume two. I read them twenty or so years ago, and then I got sidetracked and didn't get back to them. Still, I imagine that volumes two through seven require the same sort of diligence and absorption that I needed to enjoy Swann's Way enough to get all the way through it with some pleasure but not enough to feel that I needed to read the rest of the series.)

I also ended up with some cookies. On Thursday evening, V. and I had tickets to go into DC and see Porgy and Bess, the opera that had the highest place on the list of operas that I have not yet seen but very much want to see. I have also not seen (live, that is; I've seen some of them on TV), in roughly descending order of need-to-see-before-I-SoTMC Carmen, Il Nozze di Figaro, La Bohème, or Madama Butterfly. Porgy and Bess is at the top of the list because back when I used to sing a lot more, I had sung both "I Got Plenty of Nothin'" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" (this last one along with a soprano, naturally) with great success, so while I do find the story very moving, I also wanted to see if the baritone had to take as many breaths as I did during the duet. (I don't think he had to, but he did anyway, and it was exceedingly kind of him to so reinforce my fragile vocal ego.) The performance was fantastic on all counts. All of the parts were well sung, the music (obviously) is fabulous, and -- perhaps best of all -- every one of the singers was dramatically convincing in his or her part. Too often I go to the opera and see (for instance) a Tamino who is far too rotund to have survived the trial by fire or one of a number of sopranos who are not convincing in the part of one or another Italian courtesans. But on Thursday night, Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin' Life, and Serena were utterly believable as a cripple, a hussy, a murderer, a low life drug dealer, and a church lady. Respectively, of course.

Anyway, before the opera, I was downstairs in the Starbucks on the ground floor of my office building, waiting for V. to drive by and pick me up. I will not join in the popular sport of Starbucks bashing at this point. I do not, in point of fact, frequent the chain during most of the year, but I am entirely unable to resist a gingerbread latte (with an extra shot of espresso) in November and December. And since I wasn't going to be having dinner before the opera, I looked around for a snack to go with my latte, and I saw a basket of small packets, each containing three madeleines. There were plenty of other options, and most of them looked like they had probably been baked that same day, but I have always liked madeleines, so I bought a packet, reasoning that if they weren't that good, I could put bits of them in my mouth and then let them dissolve in gingerbread latte, which, while not precisely Proustian, would at least be in the right spirit.

The madeleines were very good, however, and I thought that I really needed to come up with a recipe at least as good as what I could get prepackaged from the counter at Starbucks.

Which, as you now see, is how I came to be standing in my kitchen, facing the fact that, if I were a betting man, I would have to put my money on death coming for me before I got around to reading the rest of Proust. Most men start to think of their mortality when their fathers die (I suppose the upside here is that I can call Dad and tell him that I've learned the lesson, so he's free to live forever; I think he'll be pleased), but I saw the reflection of my own transience in my Kitchenaid bowl. I didn't dwell too long on it, though. As it happens, mortality is a lot easier to face in the presence of unsalted butter. Besides, the oven was already preheated, and there were cookies to bake.


Melted butter
all purpose flour

1 lemon
2 c. all purpose flour
1 c. sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 eggs
1/2 t. almond extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush your madeleine molds with melted butter, then dust them with flour. Set aside.

Grate the zest from the lemon. Juice the lemon. Reserve the zest and the juice.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and almond extract together.

In the bowl of your mixer, put the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. With the whisk attachment, mix the dry ingredients for two minutes.

With the mixer still running, whisk the softened butter into the dry ingredients, a tablespoon at a time, until it is all well incorporated. Add the egg mixture and mix well. Then add the lemon zest and juice and mix well again.

Transfer bits of the batter to the prepared molds in whichever manner you like best. I use two tablespoons.

Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, until the edges are well browned. Let cool in the pans for five minutes, then invert onto a rack and let sit until cool.

I must apologize for the lack of pictures. The sad fact is that while the madeleines tasted great, I buttered the pans but did not flour them, and they neither browned nor released as well as they might. I have two madeleine pans, and when they were both filled and baked, I had some batter left over, and I wanted to try another pan, so I got out one of my cornstick molds and filled four of the troughs with the last of the batter. Those browned and released marvelously, but I ate them before I could get the camera.

I will try to do better with the photography next time. The results today were good enough that (with better mold preparation), I could really abandon the search for the ideal madeleine now. But, really, what would A la Recherche have been if Proust had found whatever the hell it was that he was looking for after only ten pages? And I know there are other good recipes out there. The Starbucks madeleine tasted a lot like a small piece of pound cake. The recipe I made up today was a hybrid of pound cake and butter cookie recipes. I have, in the distant past, had great success with Julia Child's recipe, which is basically a genoise.

If you feel the pull of the madeleine, and you don't want to spend as long looking for the perfect recipe as I'm going to spend not reading Proust, then by all means try my recipe. You may want to consider nonstick or silicone molds, or you might want to leave out the third egg and use a cookie scoop and drop them directly on a greased cookie sheet or a silpat. Make sure to leave some room for them to spread out, and start checking after ten minutes or so because they'll cook more quickly. They'll still be very good, though, and you'll get a higher proportion of crisp to tender, if that's what you like. Or you can go old school and prepare your molds well and bake until they're nice and crisp.

Either way, you're still going to die someday. So, bon appetit!


Anonymous lindy said...

Ack-I had actually been gazing at my madeleine pans over the weekend, and thinking of making some. Strange, since I haven't baked any for several years.

You are very lucky to be able to sing. In my next life, my first priority is to remedy my extreme defects in this area.I am hoping that if I take real care with the karma, I will come back as a clone of Renee Fleming,or better yet, Aretha.

I think you need to see those listed operas imediately. Except maybe Butterfly, which I find a bit boring in person. Afterwards, you can even sing yourself favorite bits without making sure there are no listeners around to make gagging noises, and/or clutch their throats, lucky guy.

n.b.My security word to type in with my comment was "vhomit". Perhaps next time it will be "puhke."

5:07 AM  
Anonymous leslie said...

Love madeleines. I've used Rose Levy Berenbaum's genoise recipe in the past. My grandmother's best friend used to make madeleine sandwiches - two madeleines around good apricot jam, dusted with confectioner's sugar. Now you've got me thinking about doing same!

2:44 PM  
Blogger AHI said...

I tried your recipe today. It is not as eggy as some of the others I tried. Loved it better than Starbuck's. Thank you very much!

10:47 PM  

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