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Origin of a Classic: Macarons

If you consider the start of the macaron’s history to be the moment when a little sandwich made of two almond flour meringue cookies with a ganache filling was created, you don’t have to look far back in time at all. However, the truth is that the original macaron was just one simple cookie, and it has a history going back more than a millennium. While it’s most famously known as a French delicacy, the macaron is more global than one might expect.

The true, ancient origins of macarons are unclear. Like many desserts, macarons have evolved over centuries into the small, colorful, bite-size sandwich cookies we know them as today. It’s believed that in the ninth century, around the year 830, Arab merchants from what is now known as Tunisia in Africa brought a variety of nut-based desserts and treats to Sicily. From these treats came a few products and desserts that are still around today, like marzipan and, eventually, macarons. The trading of goods, food, and information among European regions was increasing, which meant that as recipes and ingredients for these nut-based creations spread, a competing history of where macarons were truly created emerged.

Photography by Kyle Carpenter / Recipe Development by Amanda Stabile / Food Styling by Aaron Conrad / Styling by Maggie Hill

Some say that Italian monasteries were the first to create these sweet delicacies; others argue it was the French monasteries. The only agreement that can be made among historians is that in 1533, when Florentine noblewoman Catherine de Medici married Henry II, future king of France, and brought her Italian chef with her, macarons were made popular. Sixteenth-century macarons were very similar to what they are now: an almond meringue cookie with a crisp exterior and soft, chewy interior. One important distinction is that rather than two cookies joined by a filling, macarons were enjoyed as simply one cookie with only an almond flavor. The rainbow assortment of flavors and fillings we see today did not come until much later.

Because these cookies were introduced to the French court directly from Italian nobility rather than coming from the public as a common recipe, macarons were reserved for the aristocracy and the elite. But not all recipes can be kept secret and in the hands of the nobility, especially in France. During the French Revolution, two nuns seeking asylum in Nancy, France, began to bake and sell their own macarons to make money. (Legend has it that the tradition of nuns baking macarons supposedly gave rise to the cookies being referred to as “priests’ belly buttons” due to their shape.) Macarons were introduced to the public, and the love for them soared. The two nuns were dubbed the “Soeurs Macarons,” or Macaron Sisters. This is where the distinction is made between Parisian-style macarons and anything else. The Macarons des Soeurs have a cracked top and there is only one flavor, which tastes of toasted almonds and meringue. If you visit Nancy, you can taste the original, unchanged recipe at the pâtisserie Maison des Soeurs Macarons or at any other pâtisserie in the region, as they have become a local favorite.

Photography by Kyle Carpenter / Recipe Development by Amanda Stabile / Food Styling by Aaron Conrad / Styling by Maggie Hill

Parisian-style macarons, made available to the public through skilled bakers and chefs, remained popular in their original form until 1862, when Louis-Ernest Ladurée opened a boulangerie in Madeleine, a Parisian neighborhood for artisans. Tragically, a fire destroyed the original location, forcing Ladurée to reopen a new location as a pâtisserie. La Maison Ladurée went through more changes over the course of a century as it became a famed café and pâtisserie whose ownership stayed in the family. It’s here that the recipe for macarons became the colorful versions we know today. In 1930, a second cousin to Ladurée, Parisian pastry chef Pierre Desfontaines, made the bold choice to take two macarons and fill them, creating a sandwich. Another Parisian pastry chef, Claude Gerbet, also claimed to have created the delicious macaron, though most historians give credit to Desfontaines. From there, the sky was the limit as far as macaron shell flavors and fillings.

The historical tug of war between France and Italy continues even when it comes to how to make macarons. The methods are nearly identical; the difference is how one chooses to make the meringue. There is no right or wrong as to which method is better; it is only the preference of the baker. The French method involves first whisking the egg whites until they’ve built volume and then granulated sugar is gradually whisked in until stiff peaks form. After that, almond flour and confectioners’ sugar are folded in.

Photography by Kyle Carpenter / Recipe Development by Amanda Stabile / Food Styling by Aaron Conrad / Styling by Maggie Hill

For the Italian method, first, almond flour, egg whites, and confectioners’ sugar are combined to make a paste. Then a hot sugar syrup is whipped into egg whites, and the almond flour paste is combined with the whipped egg white mixture. The Italian method is typically sturdier, which is why we have used it to create our Chocolate Hazelnut Macarons. Creating assorted flavors of macarons is not difficult as long as the ingredient you use as a flavoring is the same texture and consistency as the other ingredients in the recipe that you are adding the flavoring to (for example, cocoa powder added to almond flour or almond extract added to egg whites); this helps prevent lumps from forming in the macaron shell.

In addition to their long history, the beauty of these little delights is the versatility in flavor combinations from shell to filling.

Ready to make these macarons? Get the recipe here. 

The post Origin of a Classic: Macarons first appeared on Bake from Scratch.

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