Today is Bon Appegeek’s second anniversary. I’m marking the day with a long post that has taken more than two years to write. There’s a recipe at the end. I promise.
After several years of on-again off-again reading, I finally started volume 4 of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), entitled Sodom and Gomorrah. After you spend your life reading mostly English and American literature, French literature is a shock to the system. I should have suspected something back in junior high when every single one of Guy de Maupassant’s characters engaged in rampant adultery or random copulation, in light of which I wonder why I didn’t read more French literature. Have I mentioned the whores? It should not surprise me that Proust covers these scandalous topics and augments them with the gomorrahesque twist, a popular American dance in the fifties (I might be wrong about that).
My complaint about Proust, wonderful writer though he is, is that he often writes about fine dining but rarely describes the food. He doesn’t even include photos. Recipes? Forget it. Oh sure, he can write ten pages about his love of hawthorn flowers and twenty pages about the beauty of a church facade, but an author who has nothing to write about, say, the delectable sauce atop a succulent pheasant, won’t get read as quickly as he might. Yet many readers, botanists and architects probably, claim he was brilliant.
Proust’s greatest contribution to food writing was to glorify the madeline. I read the famous passage with all due attention and was riveted by it—not because of the madeline, which I’d already baked and read about a great deal by then (food bloggers adore madelines)—but because of the unusual tea he drank with it. Nobody discusses this magical elixir. True, the tea alone didn’t trigger Proust’s epiphany, but it did dissolve the madeline and release the flavor that would catapult the shell-shaped cake into food blog stardom and forever alter literary history. You’d think the tea would get at least as much attention as Robin gets in the shadow of Batman. (Nothing about Sodom or Gomorrah implied by that Batman and Robin reference. Until this parenthetical.)
Here are the madeline passages from the Penguin edition of the first volume, entitled Swann’s Way (translation by Lydia Davis).
[My mother] sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called petites madelines that look as though they have been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of another sad day to follow, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeline. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come to me from—this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it?
Let me interrupt here to note that the drink, the tea, the liquid, gets more attention than the cake, the food, the solid. This emphasis on the tea continues.
And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madeline which on Sunday mornings at Combray…, when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime blossom. …. And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeline dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me…immediately the old gray house on the street, where her bedroom was, came like a stage set to attach itself to the little wing opening onto a garden that had been built for my parents behind it…; and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square, where they sent me before lunch, the streets where I went on errands, the paths we took if the weather was fine. And as in that game in which the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in the little pieces of paper until then undifferentiated which, the moment they are immersed in it, stretch and bend, take color and distinctive shape, turn into flower, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
Lime-blossom tea? What on earth was lime-blossom tea? I began my search and a few months later started a food blog so that one day I could write about the adventure, which has turned out to be a failure, but failure never stopped me from writing about failure. To this American reader, lime-blossom tea sounded like either a romantic citrus infusion of pale green spring blossoms or an exotic herbal blend from a tropical country famous for curry and humidity. Neither is correct. It’s linden tea. Davis wisely picked the prettier name for her translation.
I could have stopped there but became ambitious. Linden tea is almost unheard of in the U.S. and far more common in Europe, especially eastern Europe, where linden trees are celebrated. It’s credited with easing insomnia and upset stomach, among other benefits. Yet I couldn’t find the tea in stores. Rather than order it on Amazon like some ordinary schmuck, I decided to harvest it. Research indicated that linden trees are also called basswood trees and are common in Illinois. I stared at candidates, plucking and comparing leaves to compare to pictures on the Internet, and asked around at nurseries. The easiest way to spot a basswood tree is when it flowers in June. It was July by the time I realized this, so I waited and kept my eye on leaves.
On a trip to Chicago in October 2006, I set aside a day to visit Morten Arboretum specifically to see their section devoted to linden trees so that I could memorize their appearance. The blossoms had faded to seed bracts by then. I took pictures of the leaves and seeds to help me identify them later. I also bought some Morton Arboretum linden honey, whose strong medicinal flavor was so overwhelming that I used it in baking to tame the taste. Clearly the linden tree had powerful properties worthy of more fame than it had thus far received in this country. The problem, now, was to find a basswood tree in my hometown. Where did I have to go? How much trespassing would I have to do? What breed of dog might attack me? How many park conservation laws would I have to break? Did I have enough bail money?
I took different routes on my regular walks and kept my eye out for the saw toothed leaves. I hiked in parks and nature preserves. I stared at tree shapes and studied bark. On a July drive one day, I saw it—the distinctive bracts hanging from a linden tree next to a dilapidated drug store. The tree was past its tea time but would bloom again for me in eleven months. In June of 2008, more than two years after I started my search, I would finally get to taste my elusive Proustian lime-blossom tea. My diligence had paid off. Every time I passed my cherished tree I smiled with satisfaction.
But more problems surfaced. I learned that the European linden tree is more fragrant then the American basswood, which apparently does not make good tea and, in any case, isn’t the tea Proust drank. That would explain why the tea wasn’t as popular here. I had no idea know what kind of tree my linden tree was. I had struggled enough just to find a public basswood tree, trying to find and positively identify an authentic European linden was asking too much.
Then last month I drove past that old drugstore again. A bulldozer stood on the lot. The drugstore had been razed and my tree was gone.
Would you like to join me in a cup of linden tea purchased from Amazon? I like the slightly astringent flavor and floral aroma. It’s very nice, also called lime-blossom tea, quite unknown in this country. Proust probably soaked his madeline this tea. Surprising, isn’t it? You never hear about his lovely tea, just the madeline. It’s a hard tea to find in this country. A hard tea to find.
When I first baked madelines, I combined several simple recipes and liked the results. Aside from browning the butter, I haven’t really tried variations since, mostly because I was busy with that tea thing. Guess I have more time now (see links below for more recipes and information). The brown butter variation tastes rich and nutty, and the regular version tastes of clean butter and vanilla or lemon. Either is lovely plain or soaked in a spoonful of your tea where it will trigger vivid memories of this post no matter how much you want to repress it.
And me? What was my reaction to tasting the famous lime-blossom tea-soaked madeline after two years of searching and disappointment?
I never claimed to be a better writer than Marcel. I merely promised something that even Proust never delivers from astounding prose that manages nonetheless to feed an array of other hungers: a recipe.
MADELINES OR COMMERCY CUPCAKES
Makes 11 or 12 large madelines or very small cupcakes
Julia Child notes in The Way to Cook that madelines hail from Commercy, so if baked in a round shape, they are called Commercy cupcakes. This is useful if you don’t have a madeline pan or, like me, you have only one pan and wish to double the recipe. Simply bake the other half of the batter in a muffin pan so you don’t have to wait for the madeline pan to cool.
· 5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
OR simmered over medium heat until brown, then cooled
· 1/2 cup flour
· 1/2 tsp baking powder (optional, helps cakes rise higher)
· 1/4 teaspoon salt
· 1 egg
· 1/3 cup sugar
· 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and/or zest of half a lemon
· Powdered sugar for garnish, optional.
1) Preheat oven to 375ºF, 350 if you have a dark pan. Spray a large madeline pan or 12-cup cupcake pan generously with nonstick spray laced with flour, or butter the pans and dust lightly with flour. Even if your pan is nonstick, I would not skip this step.
2) Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder (if using). In a separate bowl, beat the egg, sugar, and flavorings just to blend. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and beat until blended. Gradually add cooled melted butter in a steady stream, beating just until blended.
3) Spoon 1 lightly heaping tablespoon of batter into each indentation of the pan. Bake until puffed, golden, pulling away from the mold, and starting to brown at the edges, 11-15 minutes.
4) Let cakes cool 3 minutes then remove from the pan. Cool completely on a rack, dust cookies with powdered sugar, and serve. Store in a tightly sealed container. Best eaten slightly warm or within a day.