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Give Us Every Single Madeleine
By Caroline Saunders
Regarding Caroline Saunders’ story below: the madeleines at Starbucks (next to the register) are so good. I know I’m right because a professional baker agreed with me. Heh. They’re made by a Bay Area company called Donsuemor, which is now owned by St Michel, a French company that makes popular supermarket products there. Capitalism is ugly but it does sometimes taste good. —Katherine
Myth-busting the French Madeleine
by Caroline Saunders
Made of just flour, butter, eggs, sugar, and citrus zest, madeleines are dead simple to make, provided you have the requisite shell-shaped pan. But the little cakes “evoke something beyond the sum of their parts,” says Aleksandra Crapanzano, author of the cookbook Gâteau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes. It could be their flavor — which stuns, but fades fast — or their echoes of Proust, but it could also be their whiff of mystery. I first heard the contradictory myths of the madeleine from the pastry chefs at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, who gave a characteristically French shrug and insisted its origins are unknowable. But with a little sleuthing, you can trace the cake earlier than is commonly known, and even read its most popular legend as a political fable.
One camp of madeleine myths fans out across France and across the centuries. Proust claimed they were invented at Illiers-Combray in the Middle Ages as a pocketable snack for religious pilgrims walking the Way of Saint James, whose namesake saint was symbolized by the scallop shell. Another tale dates madeleines later, crediting them to the 19th-century Parisian pastry chef Jean Avice, who may have first baked them in aspic molds. But historian Denis Saillard calls the Avice legend a “complete invention,” because madeleines were being commercially produced in a small village in northwest France by the late 1700s.
That village, Commercy, is the center of the more accepted side of madeleine mythology. The story told by Commercy’s gastronomic brotherhood of the Madeleine and even Dorie Greenspan unfolds in a château kitchen in 1755: One fateful evening, the exiled King of Poland and Duke of Lorraine Stanislas Leszczynski was preparing to host a grand fête at his château when his pastry chef abruptly quit, sending the dessert course into a tailspin. Luckily, a maid named Madeleine Paulmier stepped into the void, whipping up a batch of her grandmother’s cakes. They were a hit. The Duke named the cakes after his maid and helped popularize them at Versailles, where they became standard château fare.
The Duke’s presence in this story, however, sets off warning bells in historian Jim Chevallier’s mind. “There are certain names throughout food history,” he says, “like Stanislas, who is often credited with his baba [au rhum]...or kugelhopf. So when I see those names, I’m immediately suspicious, because they’re like memes in the food history world.”
The whole story starts to sound like a meme if you page through Les Soupers de la Cour, a cookbook by Joseph Menon published the same year of the supposed fête. It contains—you guessed it—a recipe for madeleines, suggesting the cakes were already well-known, albeit not yet in their now-typical scallop form.
While this 270-year-old recipe takes some wind out of the Commercy story’s sails, it doesn’t rule out the village as the madeleine’s birthplace. A local historian wrote in 1843 that Commercy pastry chefs were making madeleines before the Duke came to town, and local lore claims an earlier woman named Madeleine could have invented the cakes.
It makes a great story for the originator to have been a cook named Madeleine, but Les Soupers de la Cour questions that, too. Alongside the recipe for the cakes—which Menon suggested flavoring with citrus zest or pralinéed orange flowers—were recipes for “madeleine sauce,” “leg of mutton à la Magdeleine,” and “partridges à la Madelaine.” Maybe, just maybe, the use of the common first name denoted not a dish’s originator, but its approachability, its easy everydayness.
Even if the origins of the madeleine’s cake batter fade indistinctly into the past, the madeleine still had a starting point we can chase after, says historian Maryann Tebben. “The cake,” she says, “existed from the Middle Ages, probably. I think the shell shape is what makes it a madeleine.”
Recipes that call for a shell-shaped mold don’t appear until the mid-1800s, which could put Jean Avice back in the running. But in the absence of anything other than lore to suggest he invented them, it seems at least as likely it was some lesser, unknown pastry cook who first plunked leftover batter into a shell-shaped mold, perhaps the metal chocolate molds that became popular around then.
The madeleine’s origins may still be a mystery, but the fairytale of Madeleine Paulmier and the Duke of Lorraine nevertheless offers a kind of meaning. Saillard says that the story of a maid who pulls off a dessert coup when a chef and Duke cannot only began to be told in the 1800s, after the French revolution. The popularity of her republican tale “could have been,” he says, “an effect of the democratization” sweeping France. Or there’s one other possibility, he says: “The story may have come from the biscuit industry.”
More Food Reading:
It’s a New York Times bonanza today. First up, this article about the brandy old-fashioned becoming Wisconsin’s state cocktail. I’m glad it’s not in the food section, because although the reporting does include the history of brandy in the Midwest, this is really about Republicans trying to distract their constituents.
I went to Momofuku Ko with Pete Wells years ago. At least I think that’s where I went with him - there have been so many iterations of the David Chang empire that I’m genuinely unsure where I ate fried chicken at a bar. Anyway Chang’s greatest strength has always been courting the media, often by negging popular writers. Lot of great cooks have worked for him, though.
The problem with calamari has never been that it’s actually pig anus!
(I have loved this explanation of the above belief for 10 years now.)
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