Madeleines are very small sponge cakes with a distinctive shell-like shape acquired from being baked in pans with shell-shaped depressions. Aside from the traditional scalloped pan, commonly found in stores specializing in kitchen equipment and even hardware stores, no special tools are required to make madeleines. They are perhaps most famous outside France for their association with involuntary memory in the Marcel Proust novel “In Search of Lost Time,” in which the narrator experiences an awakening upon tasting a madeleine dipped in tea:
“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been molded 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…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”
— “Remembrance of Things Past,” Volume 1: “Swann’s Way.”
There are several different versions regarding the history of the madeleine. In one version, ‘Madeleine’ was a young servant girl who had been requested to create a special treat for Stanislas Leczinski, the deposed king of Poland who had sought refuge in France in the 17th century. Thus, the Madeleine was invented for the purpose of soothing the spirits of the poor unwanted king. In another version, a different Madeleine created the special cakes in the shape of a scallop to feed to pilgrims making their way to Saint Jacques’ burial site. The scallop shell was a sign of protection which has long been associated with Saint Jacques in France, and indeed scallops are called coquilles Saint Jacques.
In any case, whoever first made the scalloped shaped madeleines had a very good idea, for their popularity has only increased over the centuries. At first they were made on a small scale, but with the industrial revolution underway, the road was paved for more large scale production.
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