I’ve been dreaming of macaroons lately. But let’s be clear about something – I have not been thinking of those coconut haystacks covered in chocolate. No, I have been dreaming of a classically French, dainty almond meringue cookie, filled with buttercream and available in an enormous assortment of colors and flavors.
How is it that there can be such confusion about two cookies that only have egg whites in common? In a very unscientific poll of my friends and neighbors, when I asked them to describe a macaroon to me, they invariably described coconut cookies of various sorts – toasted coconut with meringue in a triangle shape, balls of shredded coconut with the bottoms dipped in chocolate… One person even described a kind of pantry cookie with nuts, chocolate chips, and coconut all mixed together. Lazy Saturday afternoons with mom in the kitchen figured into a lot of stories. But coconut was the c
onstant in every recipe and childhood memory that was described to me. Most people hadn’t even heard of the French almond macaroon. And, since it is one of my favorite cookies, I wanted to find out why.
The first reason that springs to mind is that almost no one sells the French version. In my craving for one, it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of anywhere I might go to buy one – so I spent a couple of days visiting various bakeries and grocery stores in the greater Annapolis area, and, true enough, I did not see any French macaroons. I saw many different iterations of the coconut variety, but no colorful cream sandwiches.
Next I tried looking through a lot of different cookbooks, but the French macaroon was again almost nowhere to be seen. The Joy of Cooking only mentions the coconut cookie. Ditto for Cook’s Illustrated’s Best New Recipe. Even Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, where I thought for sure I’d find it, doesn’t have a recipe for them!
In digging a little further through some food history, I discovered a little bit more about the macaroon, which might explain the prevalence of the coconut version here. Apparently the first macaroons came from Italy, and were called maccarone, meaning “paste.” True to their names, these cookies were a pasty mixture of ground nuts and egg whites. As legend has it, the chefs of Catherine de Medici took the recipe with them when she moved to France to become the wife of King Henri II in 1533. From there it spread to other parts of Europe, with changes, additions, and subtractions being made along the way, including the addition of coconut, and sometimes even potato. The American version of the macaroon seems to come, as many other things do, from the United Kingdom, where the addition of coconut was common.
What surprises me about this is that it was at my job at a small bakery in the US where I first learned about the French macaroon. I had just returned from culinary school in Italy, where almost every cookie is nut-and-butter-based, crunchy and small, meant to be consumed with coffee or vin santo. I used my freshly printed certificate of mastery in baking and pastry to land a job at a French-style patisserie in the Portland area, and one of the first recipes I learned there was for the macaroon. Their front case was full of macaroons in every color and flavor – they cascaded out of their basket in a veritable rainbow of sugary goodness. Tawny port. Chocolate. Cinnamon. Peppermint cream. Blueberry. Lime. Fleur de sel caramel. Bourbon. Passion fruit. Rose. Espresso. We rotated through a seemingly endless variety of flavors, and each cookie was colored to match. The colors were neon bright, so saturated they looked like they’d jumped straight out of an impressionist painting. We even sprinkled some of them with edible glitter, so not just their color but their sparkles caught the eye.
The recipe was one of the first things I learned there, and it is relatively simple and straightforward. The cookies themselves are a mixture of ground almonds, egg whites, and two kinds of sugar, powdered and granulated. You whip the egg whites and granulated sugar to a stiff-peaked meringue, then mix in the ground almonds, powdered sugar, and a hefty dose of food coloring until everything is incorporated. You add the batter to a pastry bag and pipe little one inch circles onto a baking sheet, and bake them. When they’ve baked they come out in perfectly smooth, rounded little half-domes. Then, once they’ve cooled, you sandwich two cookies together with flavored buttercream frosting. They are bright and elegant – perfect for tea or to hand round with coffee at a chic dinner party. And the taste – you bite in and it’s a bit crispy on the outside, which melts into twin softnesses, one of smooth sugary almond, one of rich and creamy frosting.
They are heavenly. Almost worth flying to Paris, or Portland, just to have the real thing. It’s high time that this magical cookie moved into the Annapolitan consciousness. If nothing else, it most certainly has a place in my dreams.