Eating is a very intimate, interactive thing. No other activity demands quite so much of our attention (and may I add that no other activity is quite so easy to give so much attention to). When we eat, all of our senses come alive. We eat with our eyes first and simultaneously we smell what is in front of us. We then touch food with our hands or feel the texture in our mouth; we
hear the sound of forks against plates and the crunch or squish or pop of the food in our mouth. There is, of course, one more factor that demands our attention, and it is a thing that we so often leave out: company. When we eat together—table set, TV off, cell phones put away—that is when the most tender food memories are made.
In the beginning of one of my all-time favorite films, La Jetee, the narrator says, “Nothing tears memories away from ordinary moments; only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.” Obviously “scars” is not an applicable to a food memory and should be replaced the word “grasp.” The point is, I think, that the strongest memories are ones that we are not conscious of during their formation; they seem to be primal and engrained in our very being. A certain moment grasps us and will not let go, planting itself in something physical, like a cookie, only to be released again when you come into contact with that cookie a second time. Have you ever smelled a funnel cake, licked an ice cream cone, taken a bite of chicken soup, and were immediately transported to your childhood? And not just to your childhood, but to a specific spot in time and space—a carnival with your best friend, a warm day playing hooky with your Dad, a night spent at your Grandmother’s home.
Madeleines have long been associated with the idea of a food memory. In 1913, Proust published the first of seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. In that volume, being dramatic and frilly (as he often was), he claims that biting into a madeleine evoked such a strong emotional memory that he “ceased to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.” When I get my mouth on a good madeleine, I am transported to a humid spring evening in April. I was at a local farmer’s market with my friend Heather, both of us famished. We spent our last $3 (combined) on a baggie of two Meyer lemon madeleines and sat in the cool grass. Neither of us had eaten a madeleine before and were completely dumbfounded by how good they were. We both laughed hysterically at each other’s facial expression.
If you’ve never had a madeleine, you’re in for a big treat. Madeleines are somewhere between a cake and a cookie, filled lovingly with lots and lots of butter. Making them requires a special pan that forms the dough into the dainty shape of a seashell. As Proust describes them: “The little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds.”
Squash and Ginger Madeleines
3 large eggs
3/4 cup raw cane sugar
1t baking powder
1.5t five spice
1 1/4 c pastry flour + more for pan
1 cup pumpkin puree*
10 T salted butter, melted + more for pan
For glaze (optional)
3/4 c powdered sugar
3T ginger preserves, warmed
Preheat oven to 425.
Coat pan in butter and flour (as seen in video). Place pan in freezer until ready to use.
Place eggs and sugar in one bowl and baking powder, spice and flour in a separate bowl. Fluff flour mixture with a fork. Beat eggs and sugar until frothy and thick, at least five minutes. Beat in the pumpkin. Fold in the flour with a spatula until just combined. Add butter slowly, folding in a few spoonfuls at a time and taking a moment to smell the goodness that is melted butter. Refrigerate dough for at least one hour.
Fill molds about 2/3 of the way up. Bake for 8-9 minutes.
Glaze is a matter of opinion. You can skip it all together, or you can simply mix 3T of orange juice or water with powdered sugar. If you want a stickier, thicker glaze, use preserves: put preserves in microwave for 10 seconds to warm. Mix with powdered sugar and dip one side of the madeleine in. Let sit for at least an hour to dry.
Madeleines are best when eaten fresh, but they can be stored in an airtight container for up to three days. If they do happen to go a bit stale, they’re still really tasty dunked in tea.
NOTE: You can use canned pumpkin for this if you’d like. I used a red kuri squash: cut it in half and scooped out the seeds. Drizzle it with olive oil and salt and roast it at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until very soft and starting to caramelize on the edges. At this point, you can scoop the flesh out with a spoon and pack it into a measuring cup. If you have leftover squash, try making soup and muffins.
What is your favorite food memory? What really takes you back, and where do you go?