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Dad's Madeleines: A Remembrance of Things Past

The madeleines bake in a special pan that imparts the traditional plump scallop shape.
Elizabeth Tannen/NPR /
The madeleines bake in a special pan that imparts the traditional plump scallop shape.

Most 9-year-olds don't think too hard about their dessert.

When presented with something chocolate, oval-shaped and dusted with confectioner's sugar, they tend to just dig in, no questions asked. This certainly was the case with the chocolate madeleines my father prepared for me and my classmates when I was in grade school. Like sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving and hot fudge sundaes in summer, the madeleines were something I grew to find delicious, festive and, on certain occasions, entirely expected.

It was only years later that I realized there was anything unusual about his spin on the classic French cookie or that they had any literary connotation aside from their reliable presence at my third- and fourth-grade publishing parties. At these occasional celebrations, we would present our completed creative writing projects for peers and parents, and, of course, gorge ourselves on homemade sweets.

My father approaches his hobbies the way some people prepare for the LSAT: with obsessive, consuming intensity. That's how he took up baking during his first wife's fatal illness. The hours spent in the kitchen helped him bear those spent in the hospital.

He baked breads and pastries and, years later, his and my mother's wedding cake. And then my brothers' wedding cakes. After one arduous experience making the nuptial cake for a family friend, he vowed that my third brother and I — his remaining single children — will be the only future beneficiaries. Still, our frequent family gatherings are always teeming with his confections.

Over the years, other hobbies have come and gone: photography, wine, Proust (no joke). But he hasn't stopped baking. I don't suppose we'd let him if he tried.

He came upon a recipe for chocolate madeleines in an airline magazine more than 30 years ago. He began making them for my birthdays and occasions at school, he says, because they "seemed like finger food, but elegant." It is typical of my father to seriously consider the elegance of dessert meant for children younger than 10.

It was at the publishing parties that Dad's madeleines became legend.

On the day of each party, we'd drive in to Greenwich Village from Brooklyn. I'd sit fiercely upright in the back seat, carefully packaged metal trays of fresh chocolate madeleines poised precariously beside me: perfectly plumped and scalloped, cookie-sized miracles of moist chocolate cake. It took all the willpower my nine years could summon not to rip off the tin foil and devour them in the car.

Consistently, they were the highlight of the event. (Probably even the time I read my fiction opus: a story called "Alice and Me" in which a wanderlusting golden retriever runs away and winds up in a trash can with a local yellow Lab, only for nine pale puppies to emerge 20 minutes later.)

My involvement in Dad's madeleine preparation was generally confined to enthusiastic licking of the metallic bowl and white plastic spatula used for baking.

For while I did acquire several traits from my father — a long nose, impatience, an irrational fondness for Jackie Mason — the baking temperament is not one. Baking requires focus, precision, an attention span. I didn't get those genes.

But after graduating from college, I had forgotten what to do with spare time. So I started baking. Dad was thrilled and bought me a madeleine pan. It never occurred to me to make the chocolate kind.

In part, that's because I prefer lemon to chocolate. But it's also because they seemed too much his signature, too wrapped up in childhood memory.

So I made the lemon-almond version, which I later learned was the traditional sort. Eventually I added rosemary, mainly because I had some. And I learned that successful madeleine making is not so much miraculous as precise. They cook quickly and, like the rest of us, are no fun when dry and overbaked. I found, too, that if anything can salvage a dry lemon madeleine, it is a bowl of lemon curd for dipping.

Whether they're chocolate or lemon, it is difficult to present a plate of madeleines without someone signaling their cultural literacy by referencing a certain French writer and his madeleine-induced childhood memories.

I try not to pay these comments much mind.

I don't need Marcel Proust's nostalgia when it comes to madeleines. I have my own.

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Elizabeth Tannen