Parisian macarons, astute Slate readers have surely noticed, are everywhere—not only in French-style patisseries but also at such mainstream purveyors as Trader Joe’s. Here in San Francisco, we have macaron delivery, and even the Wall Street Journal has noticed the trend. Why these cookies have become so popular is a matter for another day, but their ubiquity suggests another question: What, exactly, is the relationship between the delicate French almond macaron and the less fashionable, dense coconut macaroon consumed at Passover? And why do these words sound so much like macaroni?
The story begins in the year 827—so bear with me—when Arab troops from Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) landed in Sicily, establishing a Muslim emirate that introduced many technologies (paper, to replace parchment) and foods (lemons, rice, pistachios) to Europe. The Arabs also brought a rich repertoire of nut-based sweets from the medieval Muslim world, including fālūdhaj and lausinaj, almond-paste candies wrapped in dough, adapted from sweets that the Sassanid Shahs of Persia ate hundreds of years earlier to celebrate the Zoroastrian New Year. Here’s a recipe from Charles Perry’s translation of the 13th-century Baghdad cookbook Kitāb al-Tabīkh, (The Book of Dishes):
Fālūdhaj: Take a pound of sugar and a third of a pound of almonds and pound them fine together. … Take a third of a pound of sugar, dissolve it with half an ounce of rose-water on a quiet fire, then take it up. When it has cooled off, throw the pounded sugar and almonds on it and knead them with it. … [The paste is then wrapped in dough and soaked in sesame oil and rose-water syrup.]
In Sicily (and in Toledo, Spain, another contact point between Muslim and Christian culture) fālūdhaj and lausinaj developed into various desserts, like the almond-paste tarts called marzapane and caliscioni. The 1465 cookbook of Maestro Martino tells us that marzapane was originally a pastry casing filled with a mixture of almond paste, sugar, rose water, and sometimes egg whites. While the modern word marzipan now means the filling, the name originally described the casing; marzapane comes from the Arabic word mauthaban that meant the jars the candy came in. Caliscioni was a tart made by layering almond paste over a layer of sweet dough made with sugar and rose water.
The other important food tradition in Sicily around this time was pasta. Modern durum wheat pasta was developed there, and by 1154, Muhammad al-Idrisi, the Moroccan-born geographer, tells us that Sicily was an important center of pasta, exported throughout the Mediterranean world to both Muslim and Christian countries. (The myth that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China was invented in the 1920s in the Minnesota Macaroni Journal; by the time Polo returned from China in 1296, pasta had been a major export commodity for well over a century.)
The pasta and the almond-pastry traditions merged in Sicily, resulting in foods with characteristics of both. Early pastas were often sweet, and could be fried or baked as well as boiled. Many recipes from this period exist in both a savory cheese version and a sweet almond-paste version that was suitable for Lent, when neither meat nor cheese could be eaten. The almond pastry caliscioni, for example, had both almond and cheese versions, and in fact is the ancestor of the calzone.
Out of this culinary morass arises, circa 1279, the word maccarruni, the Sicilian ancestor of our modern words macaroni, macaroon, and macaron. We don’t know whether maccarruni came from Arabic or derives from another Italian dialect word. But like other dough products of the period, it’s probable that the word maccarruni referred to two distinct but similar sweet, doughy foods, one resembling gnocchi (flour paste with rose water, egg whites, and sometimes sugar, served with cheese) the other more like marzipan (almond paste with rose water, egg whites, and sugar).
The earliest recorded examples of maccarruni (or its descendent in Standard Italian, maccherone) refer to pasta. Boccaccio in his Decameron (around 1350) talks about maccherone as a kind of hand-cut dumpling or gnocchi eaten with butter and cheese. Fifteenth-century cookbooks tell us that Sicilian maccherone was made of white flour, egg whites, and rose water, and was eaten with sweet spices and sugar, butter and grated cheese.
Now back to almond sweets, which by the 1500s had spread beyond Sicily to the rest of modern-day Italy and to Spain, France, and England. In 1552, in a list of fantastical desserts in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, we find hard written evidence that the word macaron meant a dessert. Shortly thereafter the name appears in English as macaroon. (Most 16th- and 17th-century French words ending in “-on” are spelled with “–oon” when borrowed into English, like balloon, cartoon, platoon.) What did this treat taste like? Martha Washington’s BOOKE of COOKERY, a handwritten cookbook that the first First Lady’s family had brought to the New World, contains the first known recipe. It was probably written sometime in the early 1600s (notice the archaic spelling):
TO MAKE MACKROONS
Take a pound & halfe of almonds, blanch & beat them very small in a stone morter with rosewater. put to them a pound of sugar, & ye whites of 4 eggs, & beat ym together. & put in 2 grayns of muske ground with a spoonfull or 2 of rose water. beat ym together till yr oven is as hot as for manchet, then put them on wafers & set them in on A plat. after a while, take them out. [yn when] yr oven is cool, set [ym in] againe & dry ym
We see in the Washington recipe the rose water and musk of its medieval Arab antecedents. Even as this recipe was being written, however, modern French cuisine began to evolve out of its medieval antecedents, as cooks replaced imported medieval spices with local herbs.
The chef who was most important in guiding this transition was François Pierre de la Varenne, and the first modern recipe for macaroons comes from the 1652 edition of his cookbook, The French Cook, in which he eliminates orange water and rose water from the earlier instantiations:
Macaron (“La maniere de faire du macaron”)
Get a pound of shelled almonds, set them to soak in some cool water and wash them until the water is clear; drain them. Grind them in a mortar moistening them with three egg whites instead of orange blossom water, and adding in four ounces of powdered sugar. Make your paste which on paper you cut in the shape of a macaroon, then cook it, but be careful not to give it too hot a fire. When cooked, take it out of the oven and put it away in a warm, dry place.
Distinct French recipes for La Varenne-style macaroons developed in places such as Amiens, Melun, Joyeuse, and Niorts, and in many convents, where they became a specialty by the 18th century. After the French revolution, macaroons were commercialized by sisters leaving convents and starting shops such as the Maison des Soeurs Macarons in Nancy.
By the 17th century, then, the Sicilian maccarruni had become two very distinct foods: maccherone (in Italian; macaroni in English) meaning pasta, and macaron in French or macaroon in English, meaning an almond cookie. Despite the regional variations at these bakeries across France, from 1650 all the way until about 1900, macaron and macaroon both meant what the Larousse Gastronomique describes as:
[A] small, round biscuit (cookie), crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites.
Then, late in the 19th century, two innovations lead to the modern macaroon/macaron divide. In America, a fad developed in the late 1800s for an exotic new food from India: coconut. Everyone was making trendy new desserts: coconut cream pie, coconut custard, and ambrosia (originally made from oranges, powdered sugar, and shredded coconut). Recipes for another of these coconut concoctions, coconut macaroons, appear at about this time, especially in Jewish cookbooks. Here’s the recipe from the first Jewish cookbook in America, Esther Levy’s 1871 Jewish Cookery Book, in which the almond paste heretofore traditional in macaroons is replaced by grated coconut:
COCOANUT MACAROONS – 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.
By the 1890s, coconut macaroons appear in many American cookbooks, and rapidly become popular as a Passover food for Jews since they don’t contain flour. Matso manufacturers like Streit’s and Manischevitz began selling almond and coconut macaroons for Passover in the 1930s, and coconut macaroons became the best-selling flavor or version in America.
Just after coconut macaroons first appear in American cookbooks, the French have their own aha moment. Macarons, at that time, were often sold in pairs with the flat sides together. A Parisian baker (Claude Gerbet and Pierre Desfontaines both claim credit) had the idea of creating a sandwich cookie by putting almond paste or ganache between the two individual macarons. The new cookie was called “le macaron parisien” or “le macaron Gerbet” and was quickly popularized by Desfontaines’ cousin, who owned the pastry shop and tea salon Ladurée. Today both the macaron parisien and versions of the traditional single macaron are popular in France.
In the United States, the word macaron refers only to the new ganache sandwich cookie, leaving macaroon to describe the coconut cookie, while of course macaroni for us now means only the dried elbow pasta. It used to have a secondary meaning: In 18th-century England, rich young hipsters sported outlandish hairstyles (very tall powdered wigs with tiny caps on top) and affected clothing. They were called Macaronis because on their travels in Italy they acquired a taste for pasta, an exotic foreign food fad of the 18th century. If you’ve ever heard the song “Yankee Doodle,” this should sound familiar. The chorus mocks a disheveled “Yankee” soldier whose attempt to look sharp was to “stick a feather in his hat and call it macaroni.”
Our recent obsession with macarons, like the earlier fad for pasta immortalized in Yankee Doodle, reminds us that great food traditions are often created at the borders between cultures, as we borrow and adapt the recipes of our neighbors.