More than just cake: Proust’s madeleine and finding ourselves through food

Proust’s monumental novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) was published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. It is renowned for two things – its length, and ‘the episode of the madeleine’: 

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin… And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie 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.

Delicious though they may be, this episode is not really about the madeleine, the ‘short, plump little cakes…which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell’. Proust’s infamous musings on his madeleine dipped in hot tea are a vehicle for the novel’s primary sentiment: the capacity of a sensory experience to unlock involuntary memory. Indeed, recently published manuscripts of À la recherche du temps perdu have revealed that Proust’s metaphor began as toasted bread mixed with honey, and later, a biscotto, or hard biscuit. It was Proust’s editor who suggested employing the madeleine, a visually beautiful and therefore memorable delicacy. The metaphor retains a prominent position in the French imagination; in France, a madeleine de Proust is a colloquial expression to convey a sound, taste or smell which excavates a buried memory, and the French edition of Desert Island Discs was known for a time as ‘Madeleine Musicals’.

The evocation of memory through food is a universal sensation. It is poignantly chronicled in the animated film Ratatouille, when one bite of the eponymous dish transports the acerbic food critic Anton Ego back to his mother’s kitchen. We all have a particularly nostalgic food which reminds us of home. One of my own strongest food memories is tucking into a piping hot bowl of my granny’s ‘apple snow’ – hot stewed apple topped with a duvet of billowy, toasted meringue. Today, one mouthful takes me straight back to her blue-and-white striped oilcloth-covered table, in a draughty kitchen occupied by several terriers, and feebly heated by a battered old AGA cooker.

Of course, there are other means of triggering memory – music, for instance, can hold strong associations of a certain time or place. However, if I was to reflect on some of the more poignant moments in my life, a great deal of these memories are centred around food. According to the anthropologist John S. Allen, this is no coincidence:

Evolution has seen to it that food in general may be a privileged target of memory in the brain…The hippocampus is particularly important for forming long-term, declarative memories – those that can be consciously recalled and which contribute to the autobiographies that we all carry around in our heads.

Our brains’ response to food is fundamentally rooted in the fact that we need food to survive. The hippocampus (the part of the brain critical for memory) is directly linked to the digestive system, and is specially tailored to form memories about food in order to help us find food for survival. However, as agriculture evolved and the acquisition of food became less of an elemental struggle for many of us, food abundance became a tool for the enhancement of memory at a cultural level. This relative abundance has enabled food to garner a symbolic status, and it has since become a system of cultural communication or even language of its own. 

Taste memories are so evocative precisely because they are so sensory; memories centred around eating are the only kind to arouse all five senses, creating particularly rich and vivid vignettes. When we encounter a food memory, we don’t just think about what we were eating, but who we were with, and in what environment. Food memories from childhood are especially nostalgic since they can induce the reassuring feelings of safety and comfort that so often come from the family experience; whilst we can recreate a favourite childhood dish, it is impossible to recreate the context.

If food is intertwined with memory, it is also instrumental in connecting individuals not only to their own identity, but to others as well. The food we prepare, eat and remember enables us to communicate who we are and where we come from, and in turn, can connect us to others.

Hazelnut, coffee and sea salt brownies

Brownies are something that I find myself coming back to bake time and time again. I can’t recall ever meeting someone who has been able to resist sampling a fresh batch of brownies – as Nigella once said, however much people have eaten, there is always room for a brownie. They’re also very difficult to get wrong, and thus are, I find, very soothing to make.

I’m definitely of the ‘fudgy’ brownie party as opposed to the ‘cakey’ one, but concede it is possible to go too far on this front – I want my brownie to be dense and moist, not verging on raw batter.

These particular brownies were born out of a need to use up a 1kg tub of hazelnut praline paste that I bought on a whim at the dawn of England’s third lockdown. Unlike most lockdown impulse-buys, I haven’t regretted this one – I initially used it in a crème mousseline for Paris-Brests, but have since put it in buttercream, ice cream and several batches of brownies. Comprised solely of caramelised sugar and toasted hazelnuts, the praline paste is not dissimilar in texture to Nutella (but without the cocoa). You could make your own by blitzing homemade hazelnut praline in a food processor, or omit it entirely and just increase the quantity of chopped, roasted hazelnuts that sit in the centre of the brownies.

These are particularly decadent brownies with quite a grown-up feel to them – there’s bitterness from both the dark chocolate and the coffee, tempered by the earthy sweetness of hazelnut and the hit of sea salt. They’re particularly good with a strong cup of coffee (for a double-whammy of caffeine), but would be equally delicious served warm as a pudding, perhaps with a mascarpone cream. The quantities here make a slightly smaller batch than as standard, but I find this works well to cut them into 16 smaller squares, as they are rather rich.

  • 150g dark chocolate, broken into pieces (I use 50-60% cocoa solids)
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 90g plain flour (I use Doves Farm gluten free plain flour)
  • 12g cocoa powder
  • 3 tsp instant coffee granules, dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 2 large free-range eggs
  • 110g soft light brown sugar
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 150g hazelnut praline paste (see intro)
  • 50g chopped, roasted hazelnuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C Fan/Gas 5. Line a 20×20 square metal baking tin with greaseproof paper.
  2. Melt the dark chocolate and the butter together in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan filled with about 2cm simmering water, stirring the chocolate as it melts. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
  3. Meanwhile, combine the flour, salt and cocoa powder in a bowl and fork together to combine. Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, both sugars and vanilla extract with an electric hand whisk until thick and pale – around 3 minutes. Pour in the melted chocolate, scraping every last bit from the bowl with a spatula, and whisk to combine. Mix in the dissolved coffee before folding in the dry ingredients until just combined.
  5. Pour half the brownie mix into the prepared tin and smooth the surface. Then, pour the hazelnut praline paste in an even layer over the brownie mixture – if the paste is quite stiff, heat it in the microwave, stirring at 10 second intervals, until it is looser and easier to pour. Scatter the chopped hazelnuts evenly over the praline paste, and then slowly pour over the remaining batter in an even layer over the hazelnuts. If there is any exposed praline paste or chopped hazelnuts, gently tease the brownie batter over it so that it is evenly covered.
  6. Bake the brownies in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, until the surface is set with a shiny crust, and is beginning to crack. The surface should be relatively firm to touch, with the promise of a slight wobble beneath. It’s better to take them out too soon rather than too late, as they will continue to cook once they are out of the oven.
  7. Allow to cool completely in the tin before removing and cutting the brownies into 16 squares with a sharp knife. The brownies will keep well in an airtight container for up to five days.