Marcel Proust: Quick Croissants with Coffee Glaze

Marcel Proust - Quick Croissants with Coffee Glaze

You were waiting for this, right? Authors and food equals Proust and madeleines. It’s arguably the most recognizable culinary pairing in literature, and definitely the one I’m asked about the most. (This site was almost named “Proust’s Madeleine,” or something equally pretentious, until the idea was greeted by faux barfing noises from my focus group/boyfriend.) So why hasn’t Marcel appeared here yet?

The thing is: There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that Proust really ate madeleines. Although his vivid memories of the delicate cookies from In Search of Lost Time have become iconic, early versions of the novel actually don’t include madeleines at all. Instead, we see Marcel biting into a humble biscotte – a piece of dry toast. And as Edmund Levin’s meticulous experiments in tea-dunking and crumb-making reveal, Proust’s description of the famous treats doesn’t seem to match up with any known recipe. It’s likely that the madeleines of our imagination were just that: a figment of Proust’s culinary mind.

So what was Proust really eating? He’d be so glad you asked. Before asthma reduced his appetite (and even for an unhealthily long time after), Proust was a notorious glutton, stuffing himself so full that he sometimes resorted to wearing a corset. He blissfully described one of his meals, which included “two tournedos steaks—I ate every scrap—a dish—of chips (about twenty times as much as Félicie used to make), some cream cheese, some gruyère, two croissants, a bottle of Pousset beer.” He summed it up more succinctly in a letter to his mother: “Lunch is my favorite moment.”

But as his illness worsened, his need to write began to subsume his desire to eat, and breakfast became Proust’s meal of choice. Instead of the madeleines and tea we know from his fiction, the real Marcel demanded croissants and cafe au lait, brought to him in bed while he read the paper and began his work. He would dunk his croissant in the coffee (just as his fictional self would mimic with a cup of tea) and ate little else for the rest of the day.

Céleste Albaret, Proust’s trusted servant, later marveled at the writer’s ability to live on so little, after years of hedonistic eating. “The most extraordinary thing was how he could survive and work, ill as he was, … by living on the shadows of foods he’d known and loved in the past.” In the absence of beef and beer, Proust’s writing (and those morning croissants) was all that remained, evoking those tantalizing sense memories of meals gone by—his own personal madeleine moments.

Easy Croissant Recipe with Coffee Glaze

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Truman Capote: Italian Summer Pudding

How long can you last before thinking about what to cook for dinner? It’s a rare occasion when I make it past lunch. Usually by my morning commute, I’m already gone – dreaming up recipes as I walk to the subway, devising shopping lists at lunch, dropping by the farmers’ market on the way home. So I know how Truman Capote felt when he wrote: “Food. I seldom think of anything else.” That kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it?

I’ve always loved eating food, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York—and had a kitchen to myself—that I began to love cooking it. If an aspiring writer needs a room of her own, a budding chef needs a kitchen: a private laboratory where she can experiment to her heart’s (and stomach’s) content. Capote’s chance came in 1950, when he settled down in Sicily with his partner Jack Dunphy. Capote always had a personal cook, but in Sicily he began to explore the kitchen himself – “an unmanly activity, I suppose, but very relaxing and the reward is delicious,” he wrote after a day making fruit preserves. Plus, he noted, storing jam was great way to “do something with these old gin and wine bottles,” a tip destined for the Pinterest boards of boozehounds everywhere.

What began as a way to pass the time became a food obsession, with a particular focus on sweets. After graduating from humble Toll House cookies to fancy chocolate confections, Capote ultimately took on the amateur cook’s triathlon: For Christmas in 1951, he presented Dunphy with a turkey, chestnut stuffing, and a multilayer orange almond cake.

Despite his new culinary chops, though, Capote’s favorite treat was something he didn’t make. In 1962, on a trip to England, he and his friend Cecil Beaton lunched with the Queen Mother. But the royal company didn’t impress Capote – the dessert did. It was “the best cake I’ve ever tasted – a sort of chocolate cream stuffed with fresh raspberries,” he wrote. He wasn’t shy about expressing his enthusiasm, either; years later, Beaton remembered his friend cheering with joy when it was served. Because when a good dessert is involved, who can be bothered with a stiff upper lip?

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Walt Whitman: Cranberry Coffee Cake

For a transcendentalist, Walt Whitman was a bit of a hoarder. Just take a look at his daybooks, and you’ll see a list of the scraps he saved over the years: photos, receipts, weather reports, news articles, classified ads, and dozens of press mentions of Whitman himself. He meticulously monitored the papers, carefully cataloging his presence in the world. If he were around today, you just know he would be a chronic self-Googler, or maybe a habitual lurker in the comments section of New York magazine.

Among Whitman’s collection of papers from the 1880s are the few recipes he liked enough to preserve: one for doughnuts and one for coffee cake, making him a man after my own (pastry-clogged) heart. He regularly gave coffee cakes as gifts, probably because he wanted to receive them himself. In a letter from 1877, he wrote, “I was foolish enough to take a good strong drink, & eat a couple of slices of rich cake late at night – & I shan’t do any thing of the kind again.” Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. It’s what I tell myself before checking to see if the ice cream place down the street delivers (the beauty of New York is that it does).

That year, Whitman was recovering from a stroke and had moved to New Jersey under the care of his brother. “But I am pretty well,” he wrote, “& feel more able & sassy every day.” More than anything in Leaves of Grass, these letters from Whitman have inspired my new personal philosophy: Live every day with sass, and with several slices of cake.

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