Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Dear Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922),

      Every young literary scholar is scared of you. Your opus In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past) is so huge that it turns academics into baseball commentators. Let’s look at the stats, shall we? 

  •  2000 characters 
  •  7 volumes
  • 3200 pages (4300 in English translation)
  • 2.25 hours of my life spent attempting to read the first sentence

"Why Sir, I do believe we've cracked the first paragraph. Huzzah!"

OK, slight exaggeration on that last point. But you have a reputation for being difficult, in a brilliant Parisian sort of way. So when your attention turns to baked goods, I breathe a sigh of relief. Ahhh, a time to sit back, read of tea, and vicariously meditate on the crumbling of a madeleine:

... one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched 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, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. (Trans: Scott Moncrieff)
Of course, the temporary reprieve of the tea-soaked madeleine also sets up the rush of memories which will fill the next six volumes. Hmm... But oh! Controversy! Madeleines don’t crumble. Marcel, you crafty fox. 

For the uninitiated, madeleines are spongy, cakey, scallop-shaped cookies. A French delicacy, and quite famous for their Proustian heritage.  But scholars – making excellent use of their time and many degrees – have argued over their propensity to crumble. And Proust, because your protagonist was essentially yourself, it’s reasonable to think that you actually did sit over a cup of tea once, and find inspiration in its sodden crumbs. But some scholars suspect that the crumbs must have come from something drier than an eggy, buttery madeleine. Dry toast is the current consensus.

This whole issue has become quite popular among those who enjoy food-fiction crossovers (I call them the lick-lit set.) NPR featured a fantastic interview on the non-crumbling Proustian madeleine phenomenon; you can read the transcript here. A journalist at Slate even tried to reverse-engineer a crumble-friendly recipe, using the details in the passage as clues. This led to the invention of phrases like “hygroscopic properties” and “locus of crumb production”. So there you go. We’re getting all scientific about our curved cookies. Non-Proustian madeleines are the new non-Euclidean space.

Now Marcel, I don’t mean to throw my hat into this ring, because I find it slightly ridiculous that experienced journalists and professors expend their brainpower researching what you may or may not have eaten a hundred years ago. But in your honour, I will create a cookie of such exceptional tea-crumble-ability that it will inspire some future writer to crack the 5000-page mark (apologies to the future scholars of that one). And just to avoid the controversy, it will not be a madeleine. Here’s what’s in your new inspirational tea-crumbly cookie:

Butter: because your usual daily diet consisted of croissants, and we don’t want to shock your system.

Quite a lot of flour: to get that collapsible texture.

Honey: for natural sweetness.

Pepper: because you did not have a sweet tooth, and because pepper with honey seems like a provocative, ticklish, revelatory combination.

Sable: the original French butter cookie; for that haute cuisine feel.

Honey-Pepper Sables

Makes 16

125g butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup honey
½ tsp finely cracked black pepper
1 egg, plus one extra for brushing
2 cups flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt


Preheat the oven to 180C.

In a food processor, whip the softened butter with the sugar, honey, and pepper until aerated – about three minutes. Add the egg and whip to combine. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl and add the butter mixture. Combine it without overworking. Shape the dough into a ball and refrigerate for an hour, as you would a pasta or pastry dough. 

Once it's cold, roll out the dough and add more flour if you need to. Cut out around 16 – 18 shapes. Sables are traditionally cut in the crimpy-edged shape, but if I hadn’t had to photograph these, I would have gone all Dali-esque and made airplanes and pineapples, so go nuts. Using a toothpick, draw criss-cross lines in the surfaces of the cookies. Beat an egg, and brush over the tops. Bake for 13 minutes, give or take, until golden.

Soak in tea and be inspired!

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