Edible History: The Macaroon Story
Who invented the macaroon? Good question. The truth is, although macaroons are wildly different from the macarons of today, their origins are bound together and they share the same culinary history.
In the early days of my food writing career, I spent a lot of time educating people on social media about the differences between macarons (two meringue biscuits sandwiched together with a sweet ganache) and macaroons (a dense biscuit that usually either contains egg whites, coconut, and nuts). Macarons are dainty and popular with Instagrammers for their pastel colours and their perfect proportions. Around the time that I was coming up in my food writing career, they were gaining immense popularity, with popular French brands such as Ladurée and Pierre Hermé Patisserie’s creations garnering a huge following. I love macarons if I’m being honest, but it is the macaroon that has my heart.
But in order to tell you the story of the macaroon as we know it today, we have to go back to the year 827. Arab troops from Ifriqiya (Tunisia) were landing in Sicily; once there they established a Muslim emirate and they brought with them many innovations and technologies. They also brought their food, naturally, and so it was that the Europeans were introduced to ingredients such as oranges, lemons, durum wheat, rice, rose water, saffron, pistachios, and sugar. They also developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. It was not just the crop of sugar cane that the Arabs took with them wherever they went, but also the technology to produce and refine it. The introduction of refined sugar to Europe meant that Europeans could now make the rich variety of nut-based sweets from the medieval Muslim world, including fālūdhaj and lausinaj, almond-paste candies wrapped in dough, adapted from sweets that Persians had been eating for hundreds of years.
“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples. Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane.” (Roufs, 304)
It wasn't long before the Europeans were putting their own spin on these sweets. In Sicily, fālūdhaj and lausinaj were adapted and made into various desserts such as almond-paste tarts called marzapane and caliscioni. Maestro Martino's cookbook that was published in 1465 informs us that marzapane was originally a pastry casing that was filled with a combination of almond paste, sugar, rose water, and sometimes egg whites. Marzipan as we now understand it means the filling, but the name originally described the casing. Marzapane comes from the Arabic word mauthaban that meant the jars the candy came in.
"Caliscioni was a very similar dessert, pastries made of almond paste wrapped in or sitting on a sugar dough. Again, it's the shell that gives the pastry its name; caliscioni comes from the word for stocking or legging. (Calceus was the Latin word for a shoe; think of French chaussure or chausson or the name Chaucer, originally "makers of leggings or footwear.") Many desserts acquired their names from their former pastry "crusts"; our word custard was formerly crustade, from French croustade, akin to Italian crostata, from crostare, "to encrust". Here's Martino's recipe:
How to make Caliscioni
Take a similar filling or mixture like that described above for marzipan, and prepare the dough, which you make with sugar and rose water; and lay out the dough as for ravioli; add this filling and make the caliscioni large, medium-sized, or small, as you wish.
As is clear from these recipes, marzipan and caliscioni, even a few hundred years later, were still very close to the original recipes for lausinaj. The main change was that marzipan and caliscioni were baked (at low heat) while lausinaj was often not cooked. The details of the pastry had also changed in the transition, but the Europeans were basically still making confections of almonds, sugar, and rosewater wrapped in pastry. Sugar was still quite expensive, and so such desserts were still luxury products originally available mainly to the wealthy. Francesco Datini, a fourteenth-century merchant, wrote that marzipan torte was more expensive than a brace of peacocks." - The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky
Around 1279, from this melting pot, emerged the word maccarruni, the Sicilian forebear of our modern words for both macaroon and macaron. It is unknown as to whether maccarruni came from Arabic or whether it was born from another Italian word. It is more than likely that the word maccarruni referred to two distinct but similar sweet treats made with dough: one resembled the modern gnocchi (flour paste with rose water, egg whites, and sometimes sugar) and the other was more like marzipan (almond paste with rose water, egg whites, and sugar).
The word macaron appears for the first time in 1552, in La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, a pentalogy of novels written in the 16th century by François Rabelais. Rabelais was a polyglot, and the work introduced "a great number of new and difficult words into the French language". It is established without a doubt that the word stands for a sweet confection or a dessert. From there, the word travelled to Great Britain and was written in English for the first time as a macaroon. The word macaroon is likely taken from the Italian term maccherone (paste), which was derived from another term ammaccare, which means "to bruise" in reference to the main ingredient, the almond paste. It appeared in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, which was a handwritten cookbook that the first First Lady’s family took with them to the New World, and it contains the first known recipe, which was likely written sometime in the early 1600s. The recipe instructs people to pound almonds with rosewater and sugar, along with egg whites, before slowly baking the mixture in an oven. There is hardly any variation from the Italian recipe at all.
According to The Nibble, “Amaretti, a variant of macaroon, was invented by Francesco Moriondo, the pastry chef of the Court of Savoy, in the mid-17th century. They were flavoured with chopped bitter almonds or amaretto, a bitter almond liqueur. The Italian word amaro means “bitter,” and the literal translation of amaretti is “the little bitter ones.” In Italy, crushed macaroons are used in frangipani, a cream filling made by flavouring butter with lemon extract, rum, sherry or brandy.
Before Ladurée created the now-iconic meringue sandwich cookie in Paris, other areas were enjoying variations of the Italian macaroon. For instance, Macarons d’Amiens have been made in Amiens since 1855. The small, round cookies are made from almond paste, honey and fruit: similar to amaretti but with fruit instead of almonds. Montmorillon bakers have been making coconut macarons — like the Jewish versions — for more than 150 years. The city is known for its macarons and its macaron museum. Nancy, a city in the Lorraine region, also has a place in macaron history. Catherine de Vaudémont, the Abbess of Remiremont and daughter of Charles III, Duke of Lorraine, founded the Benedictine monastery of Les Dames du Saint-Sacrement in that city. Strict dietary rules prohibited the consumption of meat. Two nuns mentioned previously, Sister Marguerite Gaillot and Sister Marie-Elisabeth Morlot, are credited with creating macarons de Nancy to fit their dietary requirements. In 1792, events leading to the French Revolution prohibited religious congregation. The two sisters took refuge with a Doctor Gormand, at 10 Rue de la Hache. They baked macarons to support themselves, and became known as the Macaron Sisters, Les Soeurs macarons.”
It is presumed that macarons and macaroons were made in similar ways until well into the 19th century when the first major distinction between the two appears. Shipments of coconuts from India began to arrive in the United States and they took the country by storm. Americans were obsessed. Coconut was being used in exciting new ways; new desserts were being created around the ingredient, including coconut cream pie, coconut cookies, coconut blondies, Lane cake (which has a coconut pecan peach filling), pineapple coconut cake, ambrosia, coconut pound cake, and coconut custard. It wasn’t long before someone decided to substitute coconut for the almond paste in the macaroons (Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book was the first book in which this recipe appeared in 1871; Jews must have adopted it because it has no flour or leavening and can be eaten during Passover) and the macaroon as we know and love it today, was born.
Today, coconut macaroons are popular around the world. There are two ways to serve them; you can either serve them as they are, straight out of the oven, or you can wait for them to cool, dunk them in chocolate, let the chocolate set, and then serve them. I am equally partial to both versions. Macaroons are a popular biscuit or cookie all over the world, but especially in the UK and the United States, the country in which it was born. Indeed, the Americans have taken it a step further, with macaroon-making businesses like Danny Macaroons adding chocolate almonds, coffee, chocolate hazelnut, coconut almonds, peanut butter and chocolate, matcha, peanut butter and jelly, pineapple guava, rainbow sprinkles, pumpkin spice, and salted caramel to their macaroons. No matter how you like to consume them, macaroons are wildly different from macarons and must be celebrated as the individual delights that they are.