Recipes have a habit of changing over time, an evolution influenced by location, availability, necessity, and innovation. More often than not history’s greatest recipes have come about as a result of scarcity rather than gastronomic brilliance. Sometimes so many alterations are made to a single recipe that it becomes difficult to decide when a dish has actually become something new altogether. I have come to the conclusion that in order for a dish to remain true to itself, in the deepest sense of the word, it must adhere to a certain set of criterion.
Firstly, its base ingredients must remain the same, if the recipe calls for almonds, by all means, use hazelnuts or pistachios, but one must remain within the confines of the nut family. Additions of flavor and color may, of course, be made, these are simply “interpretations” or enhancements. The physical configuration of a recipe may also be played with, and the size may, of course, be altered to suit the maker and its intended purpose.
It’s once those base ingredients are omitted altogether, or inversely, once so many additional ingredients are added that the ratios of those original to the recipe have become unbalanced; it is then that we are forced to start considering the amalgam to be a new creation unto itself.
The Navel of Origin
Like so many desserts, the macaron has gone through a slow steady evolution. According to the “New Larousse Gastronomique,” the macaron, in its most primal form, consists of nothing more than almonds, sugar, and egg whites. This basic amalgam was said to have first been created in the 8th century, behind the walls of a Venetian Abbey. These small cookies were piped out in a circular fashion with a signature hole left in the center of each. It is said that the kinky, not to mention, unappetizing inspiration for the cookie was drawn from a monk’s belly-button.
Similar almond based desserts had been popular among the Arabs for a long time prior to this. Stories of a sweetmeat from the days of the Umayyads, known as a louzeih (loz meaning “almond” in Arabic) suggests they were likely the creators of the original macaron, bringing the recipe with them later to Italy.
Along with utensils and pate a choux, macarons made their way to France via Catherine de Medici when she married the Duke of Orleans in 1533. Linguistically, the word macaron shares the same root as the word for that most famous elbow-shaped pasta. The word macarone meaning “fine dough” was confusingly used as a catch-all term in Italian for anything made from a flour-and-water paste. This was also applied to the macaron cookie since it too started out as a paste, albeit one comprised of eggs and almonds. It would seem that macarone referred to a particular technique, more than a certain recipe. Tracing the roots of the word a little further to the ancient Greeks’ term for “mixing” or “kneading” we catch a glimmer of the logic behind using one word to describe a myriad of very different foods.
In Leu of Meat
Macarons remained a continual theme amongst the men and women of the cloth, perhaps because of the dietary restrictions of their lifestyle, many of whom were sworn vegetarians. High in protein, almonds were a logical alternative to meat. St. Theresa of Avila was reported to have said that “Almonds are good for those maidens who do not eat meat.”
Though popular behind abbey walls, macarons would have been a rarity within more secular communities. The introduction of macarons to the rest of Europe has much to do with two nuns. The sisters, seeking asylum in Nancy during the French revolution, took refuge in the home of the very appropriately named, Dr. Gormand. Looking for a way to sustain themselves, and earn their room and board in the home of the benevolent yet economic doctor, the nuns capitalized on the exotic appeal of the abbey treat, selling their macarons on the rue de la Hache to earn their living. Their delicious interpretation of the cookie gained such fame that eventually the street where they sold them was renamed rue des Soeurs-Macarons, or the street of the Macaron Sisters.
From Bellybuttons to Burgers
A simple one cookie affair, the macaron was originally served without flavors or fillings. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Claude Gerbet created the cookie sandwich, reminiscent of a hamburger, that we associate with macarons today. In typical fashion, he dubbed his creation the gerbet. However, some contend that Pierre Desfontaines of the French pâtissierie Ladurée was the first to create the Paris Macaron. No matter the originator, Ladurée, already a haunt for the wealthy and influential, certainly was the place it became famous.
You’re Saying it Wrong
While Catherine de Medici introduced the macaron to the Gauls, Italian Jews spread the recipe to the Ashkenazi in Eastern Europe, who embraced the flourless cookie as a Passover treat. Somewhere along the way, coconut replaced the traditional almond, and though coconut does indeed have the word “nut” in its title, technically speaking it is a fruit. And that is where I draw the line, this flagrant use of coconut marked the complete abandonment of a necessary element of the recipe. This is when the macaron became the macaroon and began its heinous expedition to confuse and bewilder the American population at large. When the Ashkenazi emigrated to the US, the switch had already been made. The delicate nut-based cookies had become the obscene unrefined haystacks we typically see dipped and drizzled in chocolate.
Though the macaroon is a delicious invention, obviously inspired by the macaron; it is a different cookie altogether and the oblivious swapping of the two terms is unacceptable. Leaving confusion in its wake, this misrepresentation of the macaron or the macaroon for that matter must end. Below I have fleshed out the differences for you between the classic macaron and the usurping macaroon.
Delicate Egg-Shell Crust Dense but consistent
with chewy interior texture
And these are just the glaring differences, suffice it to say these are two very different cookies.
From belly-buttons to hamburgers to haystacks, the macaron is a perfect example of how recipes change and adapt to their circumstances. Taking on different shapes and names as they pass through the generations, and finally becoming something different altogether. Here’s a recipe for macarons that is easily adaptable to any fillings you like. I chose a delicately floral flavored buttercream for mine but these would pair nicely with any flavor you prefer or even a chocolate ganache.
For the Macarons
1 1/3 cups (4 ounces) Almond Flour
2 cups (8 ounces) Confectioners Sugar
5 Egg Whites (5 ounces)
1/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) Sugar
1 Tablespoon Rose Water
1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
Pink food coloring (optional)
For the Rose Buttercream
4 ounces Sugar
2 ounces Egg Whites
7 ounces Unsalted Butter, room temperature
2 Tablespoons Rosewater
Fit a large pastry bag with a plain round tip.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a 1 1/2-inch cookie cutter, trace circles onto your parchment about an inch apart. You’ll use this as a template when you are ready to pipe your macarons. Flip your parchment paper over so that none of the pencil lead gets onto your macarons.
For the Macarons
Sift together the almond flour and confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer beat the egg whites until frothy, then while continuing to whisk, slowly add in the rose water, food coloring, and salt. Beat until the whites hold a stiff peak.
Remove the bowl from the standing mixer and add in the dry ingredients. With a large rubber spatula begin to fold the ingredients together. At first, the whites and almonds will seem hopelessly incompatible but in the face of adversity, we must persevere. Keep folding, and don’t be afraid to get aggressive with the batter. We are actually trying to knock some of the air out of the egg whites.
This act of stirring the meringue and almond flour together is called macaronage and is the most important part of making macarons. Despite the host of problems listed in many a book and website on how to make macarons, this is the point of no return; if you mess this up there is no coming back. With that said, don’t be afraid. The worst that can happen is you won’t have a perfect looking macaron; they will still taste delicious and their ugly little forms will act as the incentive to make another batch.
Undermixed Macaron Batter
The batter will still be quite stiff, and if you drop a spoonful of the stuff back onto the batter it will sit there never incorporating. This means it needs to be mixed longer.
Overmixed Macaron Batter
After a lot of mixing, macaron batter can become quite runny. If you drop a spoonful of it back into the mix at this point it will ooze into the rest of the batter in a matter of seconds. At this stage, the macarons will never hold their form. They can be baked, they may even develop feet, (the little ruffles at the bottom of a perfect mac) but you probably won’t be able to wrangle the batter into perfect little circles.
What you’re aiming for is a batter the texture of lava. It should ooze, but slowly, and when dropped back into the bowl sit on top of the batter for about 20 seconds before disappearing into the rest of the mixture.
Piping the Macarons
Transfer about half the batter to your pastry bag. Don’t be too eager to fit all the batter in at once, the less batter in your bag the more control you have.
Using your parchment template as your guide, pipe out the batter, stopping before the macarons reach the edge of the circle. The batter will spread the rest of the way on its own.
When you’ve filled every circle, grab your baking sheet firmly in both hands and bang the sheet against the counter. This allows any air pockets lurking within your macarons to come to the surface and pop, ensuring you have smooth tops.
Although it is tempting to throw these straight into the oven, show some restraint. Allow them to rest uncovered, for about an hour before baking. This allows a skin to develop. By the time you’re ready to bake, you should be able to touch the macarons without leaving an impression.
Baking the Macarons
About ten minutes prior to baking, preheat your oven to 300℉. Bake the macarons for 15-16 minutes rotating your pan halfway through. Even if you have a convection oven, be sure to rotate the pans. These cookies have a tendency to take on a golden hue quickly, especially if you’re making a light colored macaron.
Once baked, take them out of the oven and allow them to cool thoroughly on the pans. While they cool, make the buttercream
For the Rose Buttercream
Combine the egg whites and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer and set over a pot of simmering water. Whisk together until the amalgam reaches 160 ℉ on an instant-read thermometer. Or when a small amount rubbed between your fingers no longer feels gritty. That is a sign that it’s reached a temperature hot enough for the sugar to dissolve into the eggs, and that’s really all we want.
Transfer the eggs to the mixer and beat until the whites have reached stiff peaks and have cooled. Check to make sure they are cool enough by feeling the bottom of the bowl. It should no longer feel warm.
With the whisk attachment still going, add in the room temperature butter, piece by piece. When all of the butter is incorporated, keep mixing. After a soupy, lumpy, curdled-looking stage, you’ll achieve the silky perfection that is Swiss meringue buttercream. Add in the rose water and food coloring. Mix until fully incorporated.
Transfer to a pastry bag and pipe about a teaspoon of icing onto half the meringue cookies.
Top with the other halves and voila, perfect rose macarons!