Proust novels. Well, maybe not really, but it may well be true that Madeleines would be lost to the scrap dough heap of history if it weren’t for In Search of Lost Time, the Proust classic that most of us knew as A Remembrance of Things Past growing up. If you never read any of it in school, In Search of Lost Time is an autobiographical novel that begins with Proust’s aunt laying before him a cup of herbal tea (poor Marcel had terrible digestive problems, don’t you know) and a Madeleine. He dips the edge of the cake in the tea, tastes it, and an extended flashback ensues. And when I say extended, I’m talking 4,000+ pages. Not even Jimi Hendrix tripped that long, and he had an endless supply of LSD-soaked headbands. Clearly Madeleines have a powerful effect on some people.
Obviously Madeleines had to exist before Proust took his famous nibble. But as with most very old and famous baked goods, their true origin is lost to us. They carry a woman’s name so there are plenty of stories about this or that pastry chef creating them for his love, his child, his mistress, you know the drill. The other popular story line is that they were created by a woman named “Madeleine” and were adopted by the French aristocracy via this-or-that unusual chain of circumstance.
It has been observed that “Madeleine” is French for “Magdalen” who was of course the most famous female disciple of Jesus and the first to see him after the Resurrection. Thus some Madeleine origin stories have religious associations. The most famous of these involves the town of Commercy, France. There it’s said a convent devoted to Mary Magdalen once stood. According to the story, the nuns there made small cakes and sold them to support themselves, but then the French Revolution and the anti-clerical movement came along and it was destroyed. A local baker bought the recipe and the rest is history.