Each year when the Feast of St Mary Magdalene comes around, I remember certain people, and not just those named Magdalene.
I remember, for example, a certain priest and his mother.
On a hot Roman summer evening in 1989, on the feast of Mary Magdalene, I sat in the courtyard of a medieval palazzo in Trastevere where I was living before seminary started up in October. The director of a community of young Italian men, don Antonio, and I were chatting among the great pots of lemon trees in a mix of Latin, mostly, and Italian which I was learning by immersion. With his cuffs unfettered and cassock sleeves rolled up – something I had never seen and which struck me – he remarked that it was the anniversary of his mother’s death. Her name, too, was Maddalena. I’ve ever after prayed for her on this day. And I pray for him now, too, who has joined her. He was kind to me. I remember kindness.
One should pray for the mothers of priests, you know, even if you never meet them. Please pray for my mother.
Anyway, that was near the beginning of my long Roman time, after the horrors and scars inflicted in my US seminary. It was a period of healing. I started working in the Curia, served Mass inside the Benedictine cloister of S. Cecilia, found a seminary and bishop, got lost countless times learning the sampetrini of the City, and picked up a lot of less than acceptable Romanaccio. I don’t get lost there anymore, I can tell you, and I know even more Romanaccio now.
I also, on this day, remember a certain kind of French cookie called madeleines, made famous by their ubiquity, goodness and Proust.
In Patricia Bunning Stevens’ work Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes , [Ohio University Press:Athens] 1998 (p. 178) we read:
“In culinary lore, Madeleines are always associated with Marcel Proust, whose autobiographical novel, Remembrance of Things Past, begins as his mother serves him tea and “those short, plump little cakes called petits Madeleines, which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell.” The narrator dips a corner of a little cake into the tea and then is overwhelmed by memories; he realizes that the Madeleines bore “in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” …But Madeleines had existed long before Proust’s boyhood. Numerous stories, none very convincing, attribute their invention to a host of different pastry cooks, each of whom supposedly named them for some particular young woman. Only three things are known for sure. One is that Madeleine is a French form of Magdalen (Mary Magdalen, a disciple of Jesus, is mentioned in all four gospels). Another is that Madeleines are always associated with the little French town of Commercy, whose bakers were said to have once, long ago, paid a “very large sum” for the recipe and sold the little cakes packed in oval boxes as a specialty in the area. Finally, it is known that nuns in eighteenth-century France frequently supported themselves and their schools by making and selling a particular sweet…Commercy once had a convent dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, and the nuns, probably when all the convents and monasteries of France were abolished during the French Revolution, sold their recipe to the bakers for an amount that grew larger with each telling.”
Last year one of you dear readers, MA, sent a madeleine pan from my main wish list. It inexplicably arrived as bent as a Jesuit’s logic. I called amazon and they sent out another right away. Meanwhile, with care, the other pan got straightened out- much like Magdalene herself. Now I have two.
I determined to make madeleines!
Caveat: I am not what one – anyone – would call a good baker.
I found a recipe and began. I had everything I need to hand.
The recipe stressed buttering the pans and then chilling them.
One of the peculiar flavors I’ve always picked up in these cookies is lemon. I don’t have any from that Roman courtyard, but I have their essence in my memory.
Do NOT confuse baking powder and baking soda. This is baking powder.
Combining milk, lemon juice, zest, sugar, powder.
I may have filled the like shells too full.
With the characteristic reverse dimple I’ve seen before.
The oven was, I think just a little too hot. I need to experiment with it more. And I don’t have a cooling rack: I use spatter guards.
They are, frankly, pretty good!
I am pushing myself these days to cook outside of my comfort zone. Hence, new things courageously.