Food and memories

I can still remember my very first steak dinner. It came with a white creamy soup with a richness that soothed my tongue and its buttery smell haunted me for the entire night. The steak was a shock too, since I had never tasted anything like it -- its slightly salty, meaty, and bloody juices splashed down my throat as I bit into that first piece with such skepticism as to how anything so undercooked can taste so good. I was in the third grade when my mom took me to this dinner. And to this day I still laugh at that experience, not only because I enjoyed it so much, but also because looking back that wasn't such a fancy dinner after all. The restaurant was a cheap establishment. The meat was not a prime cut. The soup was floury. And I ate most of the steak with ketchup. But it wasn't the quality of the food that haunts my memory so. What I want to relive again and again is how that first bite hit my head with so much seretonin and filled my body with happiness.

It was a similarly happy experience when I had my first madeleine cookie. I am ashamed to admit this, but I actually had it in a Starbucks, along with my over-sweetened mocha frappucino. Perhaps the weather and the surroundings elevated the experience so much more than it deserved. It was a breezy summer day in the east bay area. A brand new Barnes and Noble with its adjacent Starbucks just opened along with a mexican fast food restaurant. Happy Fremont residents lounged around B&N; a cheerful blond Starbucks lady carried a tray full of samplers around the house; a large and enthusiastic manager from the mexican place offered free mini wraps to all around. I had received my college acceptance letters and classes just seemed like a stale afterthought. After I ordered my frappucino, I pointed to the cookie jar. In it, the spongy shell-shaped cookies in the warmest yellow hue invited my curiosity.

"What are these?"
"Madeleine cookies."
"I'll take two."

I did not need any information to make my decision to purchase. I just wanted to know the name in case I want them again. I did and still do. Why do I like madaleine cookies? As I bit into it, the crust was slightly crunchy, mysteriously glazed-like, and ever so slightly caramelized to give it a complex sweetness. Inside the moist-but-crumbly interior exudes buttery and eggy flavors. And it is so god-damned small! Its petitteness only makes me want to eat more. I guess for a similar reason French dishes always have so much empty space on the plates. Since then I have not been able to find any madeleine cookies that gave me the same happy experience. Not even the ones I bought from Formaggio. I do not believe that Starbucks made better madeleine cookies. I think it is just like my first steak. It is the memory that tastes so great, not the physical pastry. But I stubbornly chase that fleeting feeling. I'd buy any madeleine cookies that look good though none lived up to my expectation. I also try to make them myself. I'll make them again and again until one day they hit that same chord in my taste buds.

In honor of my good friend Katy, I am making these mini rosebud madeleine cookies for a farewell lunch. The recipe is from Nigella Lawson's How To Be A Domestic Goddess. I have a soft spot for anything small and cute. And the fact that they are scented with rosewater, served with tea, and the recipe is from a Brit makes it a very English tea-ish item, which I love very much.

Note: Close inspection on any madeline cookie recipe reveals that it really is a muffin cap in disguise -- egg, sugar, flour, and melted butter. Without the chemical levener and milk that might make it tough, four essential ingredients in pastry making are all it needs. How much simpler can it be?


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