Thursday, May 26, 2011

Phones, Proust and Madeleines


First published Canberra Times, Wednesday 25 May 2011.

Bearing the scars of previous battles with telephone companies, it is with some apprehension that we make the journey to the larger city of Strasbourg to buy a French SIM card for our mobile phone.
Our poor French cranks the degree of difficulty up by several notches. Our hope is that jumping on a train and heading to Strasbourg will increase our chances of finding an English speaking salesperson to assist us.
We do our research and decide that Orange France is the go. We locate the OF shop in Strasbourg and wait our turn for an English speaking shop assistant. Unfortunately, none are available. After lots of head nodding, paperwork and conferring between staff, we are told our newly installed card will work within 15 minutes and we leave the shop feeling fairly confident. As we walk out the door I hear; “just come back here if you have a problem”. Somehow, it all seems too easy.
Just down the street is a patisserie with a window brimming with Madeleines, those gorgeous petite French tea cakes. I make a note to pick some up before leaving Strasbourg today.
We happily bounce off to do some shopping and sightseeing and don’t think to check the phone until a couple of hours later. Much to our chagrin, the phone remains stubbornly unresponsive. Reluctantly we make our way back to the friendly OF shop who redirect us to their technical department in another outlet around the corner. We receive convoluted directions and our confidence is now waning.
Which is why we’re now sitting in the upstairs office of the OF technical department, with a bunch of people who are also there to sort out their telephony problems., We have found, generally speaking, that the French are incredibly patient while waiting for a service, seemingly a resigned acceptance of convoluted bureaucracy.
It’s hot and stuffy in this tiny room and there is no obvious system or queue, and as people arrive they stand and wait their turn with a fragile patience. This patience is tested by the chaotic comings and goings in the increasingly crowded space. Some are sent back downstairs and return only to serve their time again from the beginning. Staff constantly emerge from below to interrupt the only available technician and the phone continually rings. In between these interruptions, he sees people one by one, “ums” and “ahs” as he examines their phone; turns it over, switches it on and off, stares for small eternities at his computer screen and ultimately decides that there’s nothing he can do.
We watch this performance until it’s our turn. Our French is poor, and the technician has little English, so with a combination of sign language and a little “Frenglish” the whole room concludes that it is our Australian provider that is the problem. Our worst fears are realised - we now have to deal with both our provider at home and Orange France in one day.
To mull this one over; we head back to the patisserie where the shell-shaped Madeleines are piled high in the window. We order a much needed cup of coffee and seek the comfort of these petite and buttery traditional cakes. Sadly, as we have come to expect in France, the coffee is atrocious, but our Madeleines are perfect. They are light and golden with a hint of vanilla and just a whisper of lemon icing across the top.
As with many of the traditional French dishes, there are conflicting views of their origins. One version has it that Madeleines originated in the little French town of Commercy in Lorraine, where bakers sold the little cakes packed in oval boxes as a specialty of the area. Another theory involves that noted cake lover, Louis XV, and the legend of a servant girl named Madeleine who made the sweets for the deposed king of Poland who was exiled to Lorraine.
Maybe the last word should go to Marcel Proust who writes in his unfinished autobiographical novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu:
“She sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell … 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 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 invaded my senses …”
These are great little afternoon tea cakes and easy to make. To achieve the traditional shell shape you will need to bake them in fluted Madeleine pans which are easily available.
Although not entirely in keeping with the traditional spirit of Madeleines and the whole Proust thing, I made mine using silicone moulds bought at the local supermarket and translated the recipe from the back of the pack.
In case you were wondering, we fixed the phone ourselves. 

Recipe makes 24 Madeleines
Preheat oven at 210C
Madeleines

90g sugar
3 eggs
240g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
90g unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
80mls milk
few drops vanilla essence
pinch of salt 

Lemon Glaze
2 cups of sifted icing sugar
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp water
Grease and flour the Madeleine pan moulds, shaking off excess flour. Place moulds in the freezer while making the mixture.
In an electric mixer combine the sugar, vanilla, eggs, salt,and half the milk. Beat until foamy and thick, about 5 minutes.
Remove bowl from the mixer, and sift the flour and baking powder into the egg mixture. Fold in by hand with a metal spoon. Pour in the remaining milk and the melted butter, again folding gently until just combined.
Remove pans from the freezer and fill each mould with mixture, about ¾ full. The less you play with this mixture, the more your Madeleines will rise.
Bake in the top half of the oven for about 7 to 10 minutes or until just cooked and golden topped. While the Madeleines are still hot, dip them into the lemon glaze and allow to drip dry. They are best eaten the day they are baked.
To make the lemon glaze, mix the icing sugar, lemon juice and water until free of lumps.