This week I've been making macarons (these ones are chocolate orange flavour 😋😋) and as I was baking them I was wondering about their history so I've been doing a little research (you know how I love a bit of history!).
First off though, let's get one thing cleared up. Many people mistakenly use the word macaroon to describe macarons but the two things could not be more different, although you could be forgiven if you are one of those people as they both seem to share the same roots.
Macaroons are made with coconut, usually on edible wafer paper or rice paper and very often dipped in chocolate.
Macarons are elegant little meringues made with ground almonds and usually sandwiched together with a buttercream filling.
The story goes back more than 1000 years to the Arab empire of the 600-700s. When the empire expanded up through Northern Africa into what's now Sicily, the Arabs, as you'd expect, brought their foods with them. One of the foods they brought was a sweet "cookie" made from honey and ground up nut flour - probably pistachio, but possibly also almond or other nuts. The Sicilians called this food "maccheroni" as it was made from a ground nut and maccheroni referred to any food, savoury or sweet, made from something ground up - nuts, wheat, whatever.
Over time, the sweet maccheroni evolved to incorporate egg whites for leavening and utilized the bitter almonds known so well throughout the Italian peninsula. This cookie, made from ground almonds, sweetened with sugar, and leavened with egg whites, is more or less what we still know today as the Italian macaroon (the Italians know it as "amaretti" which means "little bitter things" as maccheroni no longer refers to quite as broad an array of foods as it once did).
Since the macaron has no flour or leavening, Italian Jews adapted the recipe in order to enjoy it at Passover. The exact time when this occurred is unclear. During Passover, some added potato starch to give the macaron more body. Eventually the custom spread all over Europe and although it was consumed year round, the chewy almond paste variety remained a Passover treat.
he first known instance of the macaron in Europe was back in the Middle Ages and although the French take credit for the macaron today, Catherine de' Medici, the wife of King Henry II, likely brought the maccherone to France in the 16th century from Italy, where it had been produced in Venetian monasteries since the 8th century. Back then, they were rather amusingly called ‘priest’s bellybuttons' due to the pastry’s shape. There was considerable travel between these two regions as various empires and monarchs attacked each other so it's not really clear where the first macaron was created but most historians are inclined to believe that the macaron originated in Italy, probably Venice, and was was further refined by French pâtissier techniques.
Nevertheless, France’s role in the macaron’s history is not to be underestimated, as that’s where the confection became massively popular. The first written recipe of the macaron appeared in France in the 17th century, with a number of different recipes emerging since. What’s more, the macaron (not the macaroon) is quite difficult to make, as it can easily become deformed and its crust often breaks during baking.
In 1792, two Carmelite nuns in Nancy baked and sold macarons in order to survive during the French Revolution. They became known as the ‘Macaron Sisters’. In those early days, macarons were served without special flavours or fillings. In 1952, the city of Nancy honoured the two nuns by naming the spot where they produced their macarons after them. With time, different regions in France adopted the recipe as a local specialty dish.
However, the macaron as we know it today, made up of two meringue cookies brought together by a smooth flavoured filling, was a creation of the French capital. In the 1830s, Parisian confectioners introduced the world to the 'Macaron Parisien' which was specifically popularised by Ladurée, a bakery created in 1862 by Louis-Ernest Ladurée at 16 rue Royale.
The macaron has endured a never-ending process of reinvention and an unceasing emergence of new shapes, flavours, and colours. They have become increasingly popular on dessert tables at weddings and colours can be coordinated with specific themes or table settings.
At the beginning of the 21st century, confectioners started offering macarons with a difference in flavour between filling and cookie and recently, famous pastry chefs have been revamping the traditional macaron using salty and savoury flavours.
When it comes to macaroons, the almond paste was replaced with coconut by the late 19th century, especially in North America, as the almond cookie was much more fragile to make as well as to transport.
The move to shredded coconut, the main ingredient in modern macaroons was discovered in the 1890’s by a French company that needed a method of shipping the product to Europe from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Desiccated or shredded and dried coconuts were found to be easier to pack without spoilage. Within five years, this same issue occurred in North America when Franklin Baker, a Philadelphia flour miller, received a shipload of coconuts as payment from a Cuban businessman for a consignment of flour he exported. Mr Baker was convinced there was an untapped market for coconut so he bought a business in Arch Street, Philadelphia that was about to close in 1895 and entered the coconut business. He developed a method to shred and produce coconut meat of uniform quality which he later on promoted to local housewives. Shredding was his only option to sell the cargo of nuts before they spoiled and this discovery provided chefs of the day the ability to incorporate coconut into various sweets, including the move from the traditional almond macaron to the coconut macaroon.
Macaroons and macarons are both usually made with gluten free ingredients so can be enjoyed freely by those who are sensitive to gluten. However, it is still advisable to check since there are now many variations on the original three ingredient recipe from centuries ago.
I hope you've enjoyed this little story all about macaroons and macarons. Don't forget that I'm available to take your cake orders leading up to the Christmas holidays and you can contact me here with your enquiries or on any of the links below.
As this has been a very strange year and socialising for most of us has been severely restricted, I've also opened up an online shop where you can order some of my more popular items in smaller sizes and quantities. I'm adding to this all the time so do keep checking back to find out what's new.
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