It seemed only fitting that the week after my recent trip to Paris I should invite a couple of women friends over for tea and madeleines. We three had work to do – planning a fundraising project for our local literary society here in Taos – but my friends also wanted to know about my trip. What better way to remember the details than to bite into a madeleine or two?

We have Marcel Proust to thank for the literary link between involuntary memory and these shell-shaped, feather-light, little sponge cakes from France’s Lorraine region. In his classic work Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time), Proust’s narrator makes this link at least a half dozen times. Here is one:

She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded 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… Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … Suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
— Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1: Swann’s Way.

My friends and I drank coffee with our teatime madeleines instead of tea, but the memories resurfaced nevertheless. They asked me what it was like to win a “Best in the World” award from Gourmand International at a world-class event in Paris for my Peace Corps memoir-with-recipes How to Cook a Crocodile.

“At first,” I confessed to them, “I was confused and worried – worried that they’d made some sort of mistake. My book, after all, is not a cookbook, yet it won a cookbook award! So, at the risk of having the award rescinded, I worked up the courage to ask the vice president of Gourmand privately, ‘Did anyone read my book? Was it clear to your judges that it’s not a cookbook?’

“‘Yes,’ he said, smiling, ‘we know. Gourmand is interested in more than recipes. We have a very broad worldview. We look at food as a cultural connection, and your book certainly expresses that.’”

What a relief it was to be back home in Taos, quietly enjoying madeleines with friends and trying to make sense of these recent events. In a sense, I had to remember, this international award in the category of “Charity and Community” was a tribute to the Peace Corps too, because my Crocodile would not exist if it were not for my Peace Corps experience in Gabon.

Lemon-Almond Madeleines

(adapted from Gourmet – 10/91)

4 large eggs

2/3 cup sugar

½ teaspoon almond extract

1-1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

½ cup whole almonds, toasted and coarsely ground

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, ribbon the eggs with the sugar until thick and pale yellow in color. Add the almond extract and lemon zest, then the flour, gently folding it in ¼ cup at a time. Then fold in the almonds and melted butter. Spoon batter into 24 well-buttered madeleine molds and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 10-15 minutes, or until golden. Cool on racks. Dust “scalloped” side with confectioner’s sugar. Serve with tea (or coffee). Yields: 24 madeleines.