I grew up in one of the most decadent places during one of the most lavish times in its history—or so I'm told. I don't remember much of New York in the 1980s, but from what I understand from my parents, history books, and Tom Wolfe novels, it was quite a party. I was put to bed by eight o'clock for most of it. By the time the stock market crashed at the end of the decade, I was hardly old enough to understand what had been or what was coming; I just thought all the buildings downtown had fallen down like London Bridge. Turns out I had more of a premonition than most financial analysts.
I didn't read the Wall Street Journal when I was six, and I don't read it now that I'm 26. But now that the stock market has crashed again and two of the most beautiful buildings I can remember have fallen down, I think I can understand the difference between this time and that one. My childhood memories of New York are gilded: I remember sweeping carpets of cherry blossoms, the booming echo of voices scrambling all over each other in crowded corner restaurants, and maman's cerise lipstick. Now, with every bus ride down Second Avenue I am confronted with the shuttered windows of so many of those institutions that outlasted my youth, that I thought would outlast my life. Turns out, it wasn't to be.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and my mother just happens to be française. We often think that French food comes with Le Cirque prices, but no—with a little bit of American ingenuity and a pinch of French joie de vivre, we can eat like princes when we feel like paupers.
For this week's French in a Flash (for a Franc), I reached back into those high times—the 1980s—for my favorite childhood imported French breakfast, remembered appropriately and Proust-ly in these trim times: the madeleine. I make petite French shell-shaped cakes with all-American corn muffin mix, to the chagrin of the French in my family who think corn is only for feeding pigs. Well, the way I eat, you can call me cochon any time!
I buy the corn muffin mix at the grocery story for 49¢, add one egg at about 12¢, and one third of a cup of milk for just a few cents more. I spruce up the mix with a blast of citrus: the zests of lemon and orange. After all, if you're going to use the flesh you might as well use the skins. While they're baking, I pipe good French confiture (just a couple of tablespoons) into the madeleines for a sweet surprise. These little shell-shaped muffins are elegant and decadent, and stained with the color of maman's cerise lipstick. Good times are here again...the 1980s for 80¢.
A Note on Some Ingredients and Kitchen Equipment
I use Jiffy corn muffin mix; I find it accessible, affordable, traditional, and good. But, of course, you can use whatever corn muffin mix you like. Be advised that my measurements for milk and eggs attend to the Jiffy mix; if you buy a different mix, just use their measurements.
Madeleine pans are one of those unitaskers that I adore (because they mean I can eat madeleines all day long), but that you may not want to shell out for (pun intended) during these lean times. If that is the case, simply make this recipe in mini muffin tins.
- 1 box Jiffy corn muffin mix
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- Zest of 1/2 orange
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- 1/4 cup good quality raspberry jam or preserves (recommended: Bonne Maman)
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a large bowl, whisk together the corn muffin mix, egg, milk, and citrus zests. Allow to sit for 4 minutes. Then stir again quickly just before dolloping it into the Madeleine pans.
Spray one 12-madeleine pan with nonstick cooking spray, or grease lightly with vegetable oil or butter. Spoon one overflowing tablespoon full of batter into each shell mold. Bake for 8 minutes.
After 8 minutes in the oven, pull the madeleines out. Using a pastry bag filled with the raspberry jam, and a tip that is narrow enough to poke a precise hold in the madeleines, but wide enough not to get blocked up by seeds, stab a hole halfway into the center of each madeleine, and pipe the jam in slowly just until the jam fills the hole and starts coming out around the top of the madeleine. Little bullet holes for bleeding hearts. Bake 2 to 4 more minutes—2 minutes until done; 4 minutes until golden and crisp.
Now you have some traditional French cakes flavored with a dash of American ingenuity. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool, or eat warm with extra jam and a cold glass of milk. Parfait!