Macarons of today can be best thought of as little sweet sandwiches made of meringue, almond flour and buttercream filling.
It has become quintessential to France and almost everyone who visits France has to try some. Cafes and patisseries always have macarons on the menu. Iconic places like Laduree and Pierre Hermé are classic stops on any Paris travel itinerary. The word macaron is actually derived from the Italian word maccherone. So, where and how did this delicate and delicious pastry actually come to be?
History of Macarons
In fact, the history of the macaron goes all the way back to the early Middle Ages when they first made an appearance. It is believed that the macaron was actually born in Italy. They were being made in Venetian monasteries since the 8th century.
At that time, they were called ‘priest’s bellybuttons,’ due to the pastry’s shape. Many Italian cookbooks of the 16th-century mention almond biscuits closely resembling macarons, albeit under different names.
Then in 1533 they were brought to France by Catherine di Medici, a noblewoman from Florence who married the future of France, King Henri II. However, the first-generation macarons were nothing like what we know them to be today. They were simple cookies made of sugar, almond flour and egg whites. They were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.
How Did Macarons Become Popular?
In 1792 two Carmelite nuns who were actually seeking asylum during the French Revolution in the town of Nancy in North-Eastern France baked and sold macarons as a way to support themselves. In a sense, they were instrumental in making macarons famous. They became known in the region as the Macaron Sisters.
But theirs was a bit different from the ones we enjoy today in that they did not have any filling. The macaroons were a bit hit and the two nuns from the town of Nancy became famous for bringing this delicious pastry into the spotlight. Even today the town of Nancy is known for their macarons and actually has a Macaron museum dedicated to the two nuns.
Over time, different regions in France adopted their recipe and macarons started gaining popularity throughout France.
Original Macaron Recipe circa 1671
The first written recipe in the history of macarons appeared in France in early 17th century. It was written by John Murrell in A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen circa 1617. Soon enough, a number of different recipes emerging since.
To make French Macarons
- Wash a pound of the newest and the best Jordane almonds in three or fourths water. To take away the redness from their outside, lay them in a basin of warm water all night.
- The next day blanch them, and dry them with a fair cloth. Beat them in a stone mortar, until they be reasonably fine. Put to them half a pound of fine beaten sugar, and so beat it to a perfect Paste.
- Then put in half a dozen spoonsful of good Damaske Rose-water, three grains of Ambergreece, when you have beaten all this together, dry it on chafing dish of coal until it grows white and stiff.
- Then take it off the fire and put the whites of two new laid eggs first beaten into froth and stir it well together.
- Then lay them on wafers in fashion of little, long rows, and so bake them in an oven as hot as for manchet, but you must first let the heat of the oven pass over before you put them in.
- When they rise white and light, take them out of the oven, and put them in a warm platter, and set them again into the warm oven.
- Let them remain for four or five hours, and then they will be thoroughly dry, but if you like them better being moist, then dry them not after the first baking.
Modern Day Macarons
Today there are two main methods for making a macaron – the French method and the Italian method. The difference between the two is the way the meringue is made.
In the French method, egg whites are whisked until stiff-peaked meringue forms. From there, sifted, ground almonds and powdered sugar are folded in slowly until the desired consistency is reached. This process of knocking out air and folding is called macaronage.
The Italian method involves whisking the egg whites with a hot sugar syrup to form a meringue. Sifted almonds and icing sugar are also mixed with raw egg whites to form a paste.
The meringue and almond paste are mixed together to form the macaron mixture. This method is often deemed more structurally sound yet also sweeter and also requires a candy thermometer for the sugar syrup.
Where to Have the Best Macarons
In 1890, the Parisian confectioner La Maison Ladurée modified the pastry to include a variety of different fillings.
Pierre Desfontaines who was the second cousin to the founder of La Maison Ladurée, began sandwiching buttercream, jam, ganache and compote between cookies. And as they say the rest is history.
Ladurée remains one of the most popular spots for macarons in Paris. They have several branches all over the world where you can still get the legendary pastry.
National Macaron Day, March 20, was founded in 2005 at La Maison Pierre Hermé, another extremely popular Parisian confectioner.