by Margaret Mendel
Recipe at the end of this post.
The macaroon is a tale of three cookies and dates back to Italy circa 800 B.C. with all three sweets originating from a simple mixture of eggs and almonds that had been pounded to a paste. The earliest version of this cookie was baked in the same manner as bread, in brick ovens, perhaps smothered in hot embers or cooked on a cast iron pan over an open fire. This early version of a macaroon was the perfect food for travelers and even marched off to war with the Ancient Roman Legions. These morsels were packed with protein (though back then travelers and soldiers were not aware of its nutritional value), they were easy to carry, and had, what we call in contemporary terms, a long shelf life.
As the kitchen and cooking techniques evolved through the ages, and cooking information was handed down from one generation to the next, recipes went through enormous changes. In the case of the macaroon, almonds were pounded to a finer consistency and then when sugar and vanilla entered the epicurean scene, they were used to sweeten and enhance these versatile tidbits of food. And as recipes traveled from country to country they were frequently altered, often as a result of what the cook had in the pantry or what was native to the area. For instance, other nuts were used when the almonds were not available. And, in Scotland, for example, shredded raw potatoes were used instead of nuts.
Historians believe that Italian monks, seeking refuge during a periodic religious suppression in the 9th century brought the first macaroon to France. This original macaroon was a rustic cookie with a crisp outside and a chewy center. A form of this ancient cookie exists today and is called the Italian Almond Cookie.
Then in 1533 the recipe for macaroons was transported to France by the personal chef of Catherine de Medici, who brought her chef and her sweet tooth indulgence with her when she married King Henri II. At this point the macaroon began to diverge from the rustic cookie and evolved into a refined, dainty and more elegant cookie. The macaroon in this more refined state was not eaten by the masses but was enjoyed by either sequestered monks or in the palaces of royalty.
Then in 1793 two Benedictine nuns, Sister Marguerite and Marie-Elizabeth, traveled to the town of Nancy in Northern France seeking asylum during the French Revolution, and were believed to have popularized these sweets. They baked macaroons and sold them on the streets to pay for their keep with the local doctor who had given them shelter. The cookies became so popular that the nuns were known as The Sisters of Macaroons.
Because the macaroon uses no flour or leavening, in the early 1800s Italian Jews adopted these cookies to be included in meals during the seven days of Passover. In time these treats were enjoyed throughout the year and eventually coconut was added to the ground almonds, and in many recipes, replaced them. Today chocolate bits might be added to the coconut and frequently the chewy morsels are dipped in melted chocolate.
In the 1930s the son of the owner of Laduree, a very fancy French patisserie founded in 1862, invented the macaron (and in France it is spelled with only one ‘o’)sandwich. By then almond flour had become available and the macaroon morphed into an even more refined cookie than the one’s that had been developed by Catherine de Medici’s chef. These sweet treats had a classically smoothed dome top with a crinkled ruffle around the edge, called a foot in baking terms, and is filled with ganache or berry jam. Today Laduree’s macarons are considered the best of the best and are shipped all over the world with each macaron costing from $2 to $3 each.
I have included recipes for the three different cookies. I must admit that I have not yet baked the fancy sandwiched macaroon. It’s a bit too fussy for my temperament because I do not have the patience for all the needed preparations.
3 to 4 egg whites
¼ cup white sugar
1 2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cups finely almonds (very finely ground)
Line cookie sheet with a silicone-baking mat.
Beat egg whites in the bowl until whites are foamy, beat in white sugar and continue beating until egg whites are glossy, fluffy and hold a soft peak.
Sift together confectioner’s sugar and finely ground almonds in a separate bowl and then quickly fold the almond sugar mixture into the egg whites, about 30 to 35 strokes.
Spoon a small amount of batter into a plastic bag with a small corner cut off and pipe a test disk of Batter, about 1 ½ in diameter, onto prepared baking sheet. If the disk of batter holds a peak instead of flattening immediately, gently fold the batter a few more times and retest.
When batter is mixed enough to flatten immediately into an even disk, spoon batter into a pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip. Pipe the batter onto the baking sheet in small round disk shapes, leaving about 1 ½ to 2 inches between the disks. Let the piped cookies stand out at room temperature until they form a hard skin on top, about an hour.
Preheat over to 285 degrees F.
Bake cookies until set but not browned, about 10 minutes. Let cookies cool completely before filling.
When cookies are cooled, gently spread a light smear of your favorite jam on the bottom of one cookie and place another cookie atop of the jam.
ITALIAN AMOND COOKIES
2 ¼ cups blanched whole almonds (reserve 15 almonds for garnish)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg whites, room temperature
A generous pinch of salt
½ teaspoon almond extract
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a food processor combine 2 ¼ cup almonds and 1/3 cup sugar and process until mixture is finely ground, scrape down the sides several time, and then set aside.
With an electric mixer beat egg whites and salt at high speed until soft peaks form. Reduce speed and gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar. Turn speed up again and beat until mixture becomes stiff, shiny and peaks form.
Add the vanilla, almond extract and ground almonds to the egg whites and gently fold together.
Roll mixture into 1-inch balls and place 2-inches apart on backing sheet, flattening slightly. Top each cookie with an almond. Bake about 20 to 25 minutes or until cookies are golden brown. Cool for 5 minutes then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
14 ounces unsweetened shredded coconut
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg whites
Pinch of salt
(A nice treat and variation to this cookie is to sprinkle the tops with course sugar before baking. It ads a nice crunchy texture when biting into the chewiness of the cookie’s center.)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Mix together the shredded coconut, condensed milk and vanilla. Set aside.
Add the pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat until stiff and shiny.
Gently fold the coconut mixture into the stiffly beaten egg whites.
Using a tablespoon dollop the cookie mixture onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Cooking time will be from 25 to 30 minutes.
For more food articles and recipes check out KRL’s Food Fun section.