Saturday, September 13, 2008

So who was Madeleine...and why did Proust shudder?

11 September
I am into my second week of the Basic Patisserie program at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. Those of you who know me well will understand how elated I am to be here. How elated? As if written in melted chocolate script and topped with a dash of sprinkles...that's how elated!! There is probably no activity I enjoy more than baking...and possibly no time more important in my life than now to do this for myself.

Whilst I'm staying in Paris part of each week I am here, I do not have a French those of you who are exacting about diacritic marks will just have to tolerate my au naturel typing. Who needs accent cedilles....somehow the word facade has made its way to English without the use of a coat hook on the c...

Anyway, I am quickly noticing the classes so far have a cumulative theme, in which each lesson builds on the previous. Hence it is important to get techniques right as they will inevitably come up later on. Last week we started with pate sable, effectively short crust pastry. The shortbread we made in our first lesson were amazing. Unfortunately the photos are currently trapped on my camera since I left my USB cable in Geneva, but I'll get them posted eventually. It was a good yield and I came home at the weekend with several dozen Sable Nantais which were a big hit with everyone who got to try them.

On Monday this week we made a classic tarte aux pommes. I enjoyed this very much as there was precision in managing the apple slices for presentation. I managed to cut my thumb in paring one of the apples. It was a very shallow cut fortunately. I was afraid to get kicked out of the class (which I had seen happen to a class mate on the first lesson). As I was already halfway through the lesson and had a totally beautiful result in working my crust I was not about to give up just then! So I hid my injury in a massive wad of paper toweling and kept on working. After apply strong pressure, the bleeding subsided and as I kept my thumb wrapped in paper and tucked into my palm, I had no contamination of the ingredients. I felt kinda guilty doing this...but looking at the result I am glad I persevered.

On Wednesday we made Madeleines and Cake aux Fruits. The latter name being absolutely the best way to describe what is otherwise known as 'fruit cake' in every other country I've ever lived. I really don't like fruit cake, but this was a good recipe and it didn't end up like those fruit-speckled doorstops that circulate at Christmas time. Chef Cotte decorated the loaves with beautiful glace fruit, pods of vanilla, star anise and something called Angelica. Green paste that you can cut into all sorts of wild real explanation on what it was made of, other than a perennial herb that is boiled with sugar, with coloring added (lots of that I might add). It's on my 'to-google' list this weekend.

Anyway, the best recipe this my opinion...was the Madeleines. The beautifully simple, shell-shaped cakes that are often served with tea. Ours emerged from the oven smelling so fresh & buttery, with a slightly crisp edge and a soft tender crumb lightly perfumed with lemon zest and vanilla. Those plasticky industrial versions you buy in supermarkets are no match for a hot, homemade one. It was mid afternoon by the time we finished and I quickly wolfed down three of them before I could stop myself. Bliss...

What I lacked in my tasting experience was more about where Madeleines got their name. I assumed Mary Magdalene...some sort of temptress, quicky cake. There is some dispute on the origins based on Larousse Gastonomic Index as well as Wikipedia. It seems they were named after Madeleine Paulmier, but it is unclear whether she lived in the 18th or 19th century. If the former, then she was apparently the cook for Stanisław Leszczyński, whose son-in-law was Louis XV. But the best reference to Madeleines comes in relation to Marcel Proust, who describes tasting one soaked in tea as an exquisite pleasure invading his senses, causing a shudder to run through his whole body. Well Marcel, having scarfed 3 without blinking, I know EXACTLY what you mean...!

Tomorrow...gateau basque. I'm already basking in it...yea! :-)


neil said...

Good on you for not stopping for a cut. I stabbed myself in the palm one time helping a mate in his restaurant. A bit of cotton wool, a rubber glove and on with the show. Do you know, i don't think I've ever had a madeleine, but your description makes me want to...

Lisa said...

Thanks're my first commentor on the site! The whole cut thing was a big annoyance and the school (rightfully so) takes any injury very seriously.

The madeleines are super easy to prepare, and have a simple & uncluttered taste & texture to them. Perfect with a cup of tea...Proust was right again! I trialled making them in a small muffin tin and this worked pretty well too. If you want to try the recipe, let me know.