If you’ve ever confused macarons with macaroons, don’t worry. You’re absolutely not the only one. But what is the difference between these two sweet treats? In our May/June 2020 issue, we dive into an explanation and explore the history of both classic cookies.
Though a French delicacy through and through, the macaron has decidedly Arabic and Italian roots. During their time occupying Sicily in the 9th century, Arab troops introduced a penchant for almond-based desserts, including the base formula for marzipan. Italian monks and nuns adapted the ground almond-sugar combo to include egg whites, creating crunchy cookies they dubbed “priest’s belly buttons” due to the cookies’ shape. The recipe eventually traveled from Italy and into France, possibly through Catherine de Medici, who married Henry II of France in 1533 and brought along her Italian pastry chefs, who, in turn, brought over a macaron recipe. Over the years, the French would tinker, refine, and popularize the formula.
In the late 1800s, the macaron received another fantastical transformation at renowned tea salon Ladurée in Paris. Pierre Desfontaines had designed a très chic sandwich cookie from the macaron, filling the fragile shells with ganache, jam, or marzipan to create a singularly decadent dessert. Today, you can find them dyed in rainbow shades and boasting any flavor imaginable, but every macaron, from the vanilla to the foie gras, still contains the traditional trinity of egg whites, ground almonds, and sugar.
Unsurprisingly, the two cookies that are separated only by an extra “o” have very similar origins—sweet branches of the same tree, if you will. The ground almond, egg white, and sugar recipe Catherine de Medici possibly brought to France to kick-start the macaron evolution is the same one colonists brought to the New World. First Lady Martha Washington had a recipe for “mackaroons”—most French words ending in “-on” received an extra “o” when translating to English, such as balloon and cartoon—in her family’s handwritten cookbook, featuring the usual ingredients, plus an addition of rose water and musk, a nod toward the dessert’s Arabian roots.
But come the late 1800s, a new ingredient rose to prominence in the United States: coconut. Bakers substituted the novelty item—newly packaged and sold as desiccated (dried out) coconut flakes—for ground almonds, creating an instantly iconic cookie. A flourless treat that could be enjoyed during Passover, the recipe became particularly popular within Jewish communities. In fact, the first Jewish cookbook published in the US, Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book, describes making “Cocoanut Macaroons” as follows: “To one grated cocoanut add its weight in sugar, and the white of one egg, beaten to a snow; stir it well, and cook a little; then wet your hands and mould it into small oval cakes; grease a paper and lay them on; bake in a gentle oven.” Little has changed from this original recipe, except for the decadent addition of sweetened condensed milk and a final dip in chocolate.