Cooking with Cranmer…
Looking at the rising status of The Feast of Mary Magdalene
And that unique
“plaisir délicieux” of Madeleine cakes
by Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff
(For two version of the classic recipe and the full text see the link below)
Some of the most famous words in the vast oeuvre of Marcel Proust relate to the awakening that overcame him upon the smallest taste of a single tiny cake one afternoon when taking tea:
….je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse: ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi.
….I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the madeleine. No sooner had the warm liquid, mixed with the crumbs, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent on the extraordinary changes that were taking place in me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. At once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect that love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.
(Translated by Scott Moncrieff, edited by William Carter, 2013)
Sadly, it seems that in his original drafts of this episode the great moment of recollection was occasioned by an altogether humbler slice of toast, yet the madeleine cakes are—as we might expect of Proust richly laden with association. For a start they are made in the shape of a scallop shell which was the emblem of Saint James (Jacques in French) and as such these shells were worn in the Middle Ages by pilgrims making their way to Santiago di Compostela.
The church of Saint Jacques in Illiers-Combray was a stopping point on the pilgrim route to Spain and down to the present scallop shells can be seen in the church at Illiers-Combray on the statue of Saint Jacques, whose pilgrim coat they adorn.
But what of these little cakes themselves — the story goes, that they were named after a young maid who baked such cakes for Stanislas Leczinski – the Duke of Lorraine, deposed King of Poland – in the town of Commercy. There are other versions of the story, but Commercy has determinedly claimed the madeleine as its own and of course there are countless variations on the traditional recipe but two examples may serve here and are found below.
But before turning to those, it is worth noting that this year the current Pope decided by means of a formal decree to elevate the commemoration of Mary Magdalene on the 22nd of July every year from a mere “memorial” (the status accorded to the commemoration of most saints) to a full “Feast”. In doing so, he pointed out that St. Mary Magdalene’s was the first person to witness Christ’s resurrection and was a “true and authentic evangelizer,” The decree formalizing the decision was published by the Congregation for Divine Worship on June 10th along with an article explaining its significance under the highly interesting title Apostolorum Apostola (Apostle of the Apostles) which strongly hints at a status which feminists for some time have been claiming for Mary Magdalene.
Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the congregation, wrote that in celebrating “an evangelist who proclaims the central joyous message of Easter,” St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is a call for all Christians to “reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the new evangelization and the greatness of the mystery of divine mercy.” Adding that,
“Pope Francis has taken this decision precisely in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy to highlight the relevance of this woman who showed great love for Christ and was much loved by Christ,”
While most liturgical celebrations of individual saints during the year are known formally as memorials, those classified as feasts are reserved for important events in Christian history and for saints of particular significance, such as the Twelve Apostles.
In his apostolic letter Dies Domini (The Lord’s Day), St. John Paul II had previously explained that the “commemoration of the saints does not obscure the centrality of Christ, but on the contrary extols it, demonstrating as it does the power of the redemption wrought by him.”
Preaching about St. Mary Magdalene, Pope Francis highlighted Christ’s mercy toward a woman who was “exploited and despised by those who believed they were righteous,” but she was loved and forgiven by him.
Her tears at Christ’s empty tomb are a reminder that “sometimes in our lives, tears are the lenses we need to see Jesus,” the pope said April 2, 2013, during Mass in his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae.
Pope Francis also mentions her specifically in the prayer he composed for the Year of Mercy saying, “Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things; made Peter weep after his betrayal, and assured paradise to the repentant thief.”
Archbishop Roche explained that in giving St. Mary Magdalene the honor of being the first person to see the empty tomb and the first to listen to the truth of the resurrection, “Jesus has a special consideration and mercy for this woman, who manifests her love for him, looking for him in the garden with anguish and suffering.”
Drawing a sharp contrast between Eve, who “spread death where there was life,” and St. Mary Magdalene, who “proclaimed life from the tomb, a place of death,” the archbishop said her feast day is a lesson for all Christians to trust in Christ who is “alive and risen.” Adding that, “It is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman has the same level of feast given to the celebration of the apostles in the general Roman calendar and highlights the special mission of this woman who is an example and model for every woman in the church.”
But recalling the cakes — here is one way to make them:
THE JULIA CHILD RECIPE
As found in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, by Julia Child.
2 large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
4 ounces unsalted butter and 1 1/2 tablespoons for buttering the molds (total of 5 1/4 ounces)
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Grated lemon zest from 1/2 lemon
3 drops of lemon juice (or 2 of lemon and 2 of bergamot)
2 large Madeleine pans
All the ingredients should be brought to room temperature before mixing, so that the melted butter does not congeal in the batter before the ingredients have blended together.
Combine the flour and sugar in a mixing bowl and add three quarters of the eggs. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon to blend into a heavy cream – if very stiff, add a little bit of the remaining egg, one droplet at a time. Set aside for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring all of the butter to a boil until it begins to brown very lightly. Combine 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter and tablespoon of flour in a small bowl and set aside.
Stir the rest of the butter over cold water until cool but still liquid. Beat the remaining bit of egg into the batter and stir in the cool butter. Stir in the salt, vanilla, grated lemon zest, lemon juice (and bergamot if using). Cover the batter, and set aside in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Meanwhile, paint the Madeleine cups with a light coating of the browned butter and flour mixture, wiping up any pools that form in the bottom. Set aside or refrigerate if the kitchen is warm.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Using a spoon and rubber spatula, drop a rounded tablespoonful of batter into each Madeleine cup. Do not spread the batter to fill the mold. Repeat with remaining batter and mold. Set pans on the middle rack and bake for about 15 minutes. The batter will spread on its own to fill the cups and a hump will gradually form in the middle. Unmold onto a rack, humped side up.
Serve as they are, or sprinkled with a dusting of confectioner’s (“icing”) sugar.
Makes 2 dozen Madeleines.