The Ordinary, Transformed

Video game along with me: Dragon Quest Builders 2 for Nintendo Switch

When I was younger, there were a lot of chain letter e-mail surveys that people would fill out about themselves and send out. I never noticed the point at which people stopped doing that, but one day it just kind of stopped. I've noticed since the quarantine started, a lot of people have started posting similar surveys on Facebook—ten things you don't like that most people do like, or ten jobs you've had where nine are true and people have to guess the job you haven't done.

On that job list, one of the nine real jobs I've had would include one of my favorite jobs: working as the assistant manager of a video game store. One day I will tell the story of how I have been a fan of the Dragon Quest video games since 1989, and my collection of old video games.

Every time the Dragon Quest series reaches a new system, I end up having to get that system. This would be why I've worked my way from the NES in 1989 to the Nintendo Switch today. As long as they make them, I'll play them. But today's entry isn't about my niche video game obsession—today's entry is about baking.

The Ordinary, Transformed: Baking Madeleines

This is a continuation of an earlier story. I wrote a few days ago about how much I love madeleines and how the taste of madeleines carries me back to some very fond memories. There is a bit of the obvious woven into this mental association because the madeleine is famous for its literary association with memory.

In Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the narrator describes his body and mind awakening from everyday complacency as he tastes “a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of [madeleine] cake.” The famous madeleine moment is a discovery of his fullest self inside an ordinary gesture. Ultimately, Proust suggests that the tender bite of a scallop-shaped sponge cake contains a burst of memory and desire—the ordinary, transformed.

I had my very own madeleine moment(s) at the FIAP in Paris very shortly before I read Proust and learned the reference, but once I did, Proust's choice of cake struck me as wonderfully fitting.

Obviously, in these current times of quarantine and uncertainty, what I need is a little bit of the ordinary, transformed: a small seashell cake full of butteriness and happy memories. A simple joy, but a valuable one, as so many of our simple joys are.

I ordered my madeleine pan from Amazon and waited. The shape is important—a madeleine must have a delicate fluted shell shape on one side, and then when you flip it, there should be a lovely little bump. I might sound like I am being snobby about this. I don't think I am. The shape is both pretty and distinctive. It makes eating one feel just a little more special. And then my pretty pan arrived!

So now is the point where I would normally write about how I baked them and they were dreamy, and then I would wax poetic about the fluffy, light perfection of the golden-hued sponge and so forth. But I am not going to do that yet.

I will begin with my reasoning for the choosing this recipe. I don't like citrus, so any recipes which called for lemon zest or orange zest were either ignored or I mentally noted that I would just leave that part out. The next criterion I was looking for: "does this recipe call for enough butter to kill a man?" If the recipe didn't call for heart-attack-inducing levels of butter, I ignored it. Look, the butteriness of the madeleine is the crucial part. If savoring the madeleine isn't like eating a piece of butter in cake format, then get out. This girl has BUTTER STANDARDS for her madeleines. Don't judge me.

I still see you judging. You can stop now. Only God can judge my passion for butter. And I'm sure he will. I'm sorry, God. It's just so good.

The recipe I chose drew me in because it suggested browning the butter. I've never browned butter before, but every hipster recipe in the last few years are things like "gnocchi in brown butter" or something drizzled with a "brown butter and sage sauce." Doesn't that sound tasty?

So the siren call of butter lured me in. Do you know how delicious those words sound to me? Butter. Golden-brown. Golden bits. Like, yes, obviously this recipe is calling to my soul. This is the one.

The recipe starts by melting butter in a pan...very good start. I begin baking. Step one is looking irresistibly delicious. And the whole kitchen starts to smell like warm butter. Yes! Very good. Approve.

But then...I kind of maybe sort of burned the butter while browning? Maybe?

See, it's not my fault—the instructions did not note that the butter gets impossibly foamy and I couldn't see what color the butter was through all the ridiculous foam. If I were a smart girl, I would have looked at my butter, diagnosed it as burned, and started with fresh butter.

But no one ever said I was a smart girl! And I'd just used a whole stick of butter... so... what if it wasn't really burned? Like, what if those little brown flecks were just what browned butter looks like? How am I to know? So I just rolled with it.

I think the point at which I added the butter into the batter and everything went...sort of...unappetizingly brown, I knew for sure that I'd burned the butter. Being that butter is the beating heart of this cake, that was probably going to be a problem.

But I soldiered on! And you know what's delicious? Desserts made with real vanilla bean scrapings that have the wonderful little black flecks of actual vanilla. And if you looked at the brown flecks in my burned-butter-batter (say that three times fast), it looked a little bit like vanilla bean flecks! Not the same thing, but similar, right??? This is how I reasoned to myself that everything was just fine with this batter.

Reader, everything was not just fine with this batter.

And so this is the story of the time I tried to transform the ordinary into the magical, and I ended up transforming the ordinary into the disgusting. They were...not good.

So close. And yet so far. And the little brown flecks? Yeah, no. Not like vanilla beans at all.


Better luck next time!

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