One of my favorite passages in literature is from Borges’s The Aleph where he talks about this thing called the Aleph. In order to see it you have to go down a staircase to a basement and then eventually in the cracks of the staircase you can see everything in the universe all at once. I’ll just throw the quote in, sorry it’s long, but it’s one of my faves:
“On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realized that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me…I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon —the unimaginable universe.”
Why do I bring this up? And what on earth does it have to do with madeleines? Well, this weekend, I went upstate to my parents’ house–the house they built for us, the house my brother was born in and we all grew up in– for the last time. My parents have sold it and they are moving. The visit was much like every other visit, it is home after all. I remember the first time I stepped foot into my bedroom when the house was still a frame, fighting with my sister for the room with the view, even though it was the smallest. Below is a picture from my last moments in that room. This is the home that bore witness to much of my childhood, ushered me through my teenage years, greeted my visits home from college, housed me briefly in fits and spurts through my adult years.
For this visit I came wielding a knife. The house, the backdrop of my days, has enabled me to see my aleph because for so many years it was the center of my universe. So a little after midnight, I beckoned my brother and my husband to come downstairs with me to the basement where we used to play and leave a little aleph- our initials or whatever our secret mark is- for posterity on the back of the staircase. We carved for a while, each in our own reverie. Something to say we were there. I was here. I am here. Of course my brother shut the door on me, leaving me alone in the scary basement for old times’ sake.
I’m sure I will see the elusive aleph many times in my life if I’m lucky because we are all a part of it. As a way of embracing the world through food and keeping me close to what I love and for comfort from the snow that has been heaped upon New York, I attempted a French butter cake. They’re actually quite simple! You can make them lemony, orange, savory with different herbs, chocolate, poppy seed or plain. I’ve already done them a few times, once with a heavy hand on the zest, another with a heavier rosemary touch. They take 15 minutes to make. I made this batch as a warm midnight snack. Depending on how long you beat the batter you may or may not get the defining hump in the middle. My first batch was perfect, the second was a little flatter. Both were delicious. Experiment and enjoy!
Petite Lemon Rosemary Madeleines
adapted from allrecipes.com
Makes 1 dozen
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest (or orange zest)
- 1 handful fresh rosemary (2 to 3 sprigs)
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar for decoration optional
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter madeleine molds; set aside. Melt butter and let cool to room temperature. In a small mixing bowl, beat eggs, vanilla and salt at high speed with an electric beater until light.
Beating constantly, gradually add sugar; and continue beating at high speed until mixture is thick and pale and ribbons form in bowl when beaters are lifted, 5 to 10 minutes. Sift flour into egg mixture 1/3 at a time, gently folding after each addition. Add lemon zest and rosemary and pour melted butter around edge of batter. Quickly but gently fold butter into batter. Spoon batter into molds about a tablespoon in each shell; it will mound slightly above tops.
Bake 14 to 17 minutes, or until cakes are golden and the tops spring back when gently pressed with your fingertip. Use the tip of the knife to loosen madeleines from pan; invert onto rack. Immediately sprinkle warm cookies with granulated sugar. Madeleines are best eaten the day they’re baked. Leftover madeleines are wonderful when dunked into coffee or tea.