The French Do It Better

(by Stephanie Vuckovic)

“Do you have baki’s recipe for those donuts?” I asked my mom one Saturday morning in fifth grade.


“You mean the krofne?” she responded, barely looking up from her fashion sketches.

“Yes, the krofne,” I replied, trying to mimic her Serbian accent as best I could. “The ones baki and I made on our last trip to Belgrade.”

“Um, I don’t think so,” she said while continuing to draw. Clearly, she did not appreciate the urgency I felt in wanting to make this traditional recipe of her mother’s, my baki.

Perhaps it was because my mom was anything but traditional. Mila, short for Radmila, immigrated to America from the former Yugoslavia in 1963 with my father and brother. My dad had secured a job as a professor at the University of Notre Dame, and they couldn’t tell anyone that they were leaving. Not even her mom. They wanted to escape the Communist system that curbed their political and societal freedoms, even though my mom lived fairly well as the daughter of a textile merchant.

I’m not sure what my mom expected to find in her new country. She had given up her dreams of becoming an artist and fashion designer, dropping out of textile college to marry my father at 21. I do know that she desperately wanted more children. She suffered five miscarriages between my brother’s birth and mine.

Once here, my mom fell in love with the can-do American spirit, as well as the styles of the '60s and '70s. She was a proud immigrant, but we still visited her home country every few summers because she missed her family. We stayed with her parents in the Serbian capital and went to their seaside home on the Adriatic. I loved those trips, swimming in the salty sea, exploring the streets of Belgrade and baking with baki.

(visiting Serbia)


My mom never took much interest in baking, or cooking. In the same way that baki showed her love for me through food, my mom taught me drawing and “punching,” a craft she invented that fell somewhere between needlepoint and macrame. She also made me her partner in crime for visits to thrift and antique stores, where we’d scour shelves for gems discarded from someone’s else’s world.

She had a palpable energy, and I loved being with her. I learned to soak up all of the attention I could because inevitably, a depressive or “high” episode carried her to the inpatient psychiatric ward and into a world closed off to me, one that I hated. I didn’t even care that she never cooked for me when she was home and that my dad made greasy, old-world recipes. I just wanted her around.

The only time she developed an interest in cooking was after she divorced my dad when she turned 50 and we moved from small town Indiana to Chicago. It was the eighties, and the height of cool in retail, the industry in which she worked, was French. We couldn’t afford French designer clothing from the likes of Chanel or Christian Lacroix, or even French beauty products from Lancôme. But there was one trendy area that remained accessible to all: French food.

With the same fervor she applied to her art, my mom dove into French cooking. Open cookbooks featuring glossy photos of coq au vin and salade niçoise littered our apartment’s kitchen counter. (So did cockroaches, but only at night, thankfully). Special-ordered soufflé and quiche pans crowded our small wooden cabinets. Never one to be practical and make something that we could actually eat for dinner, she focused on the desserts.

“Isn’t this raspberry soufflé amazing?” she asked me one day as I rushed out the door to one of my babysitting jobs.

“Sure, Mom,” I said, trying to sound supportive. But it was hard. By this time, the illogic of her illness, with its frequent cascading highs and lows, bumped up against my desire for structure and stability at home. As a teenager, I wasn’t able to completely appreciate the strength it took for her to leave a 28-year marriage to an alcoholic intellectual more interested in his papers and drinking than being a husband and father. Instead, I judged her harshly for what I saw as her inability to cope with life’s challenges. I also wanted more of the focus on me, not her and her myriad issues.


But focus she did, and fairly successfully, on one object, a French dessert that she mastered: the madeleine. Made famous in the 1920s by Marcel Proust who described memories of his childhood flooding back while eating madeleines dipped in tea, she found vendors to sell her their unique shell-shaped pans in bulk in those pre-internet days.

Like many of her ideas, this one was grandiose. As I left Chicago for college in the east, she finagled a deal with a local hotel to use its industrial-sized kitchen. She built upon the original recipe and added novel flavors like rosewater, almond and lavender. The Chicago Tribune featured a story on her fledgling business. She was trying to expand sales with local cafés when, just like Proust, whose memories crashed into the present through those lovely snack cakes, her past roared back; in this case, it derailed her. Her grand plans fell apart, and she delved deeper into depression, financial insecurity and eventually, dementia.

And even though she never showed her love for me through food, I ended up showing her mine. In her waning days, when she couldn’t eat anything but puréed foods, I fed her the pasty white mashed potatoes and beige ground meat that had become her diet staples. As much as the texture of the food made it less than appetizing, it felt natural to me to do this.

The winter after she died in 2019, I dug out the old madeleine pans from my basement. I suppose I could have just bought the treats from Starbucks where they were now ubiquitous. But I decided to make my own and in turn, pay tribute to my mom who had fiercely loved her madeleines and me, and had always been ahead of her time.

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Stephanie Vuckovic is a project manager who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. She can be found at www.giantsheetcake.com, on Twitter and Instagram.

Madeleines


2 eggs, beaten

1 c. sugar

1 c. sifted cake flour or all-purpose flour

3/4 c. butter, melted and cooled

1 t. vanilla extract


In the top of a double boiler, heat eggs and sugar until warm.

Take off heat, and beat until thick. Let cool.

Stir in flour.

Stir in melted butter and vanilla extract.

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Pour batter into greased madeleine pan or small muffin cups.

Bake for 15 minutes.