Let me start right off the bat by saying a macaron and a macaroon are not one and they same thing, and I’ll take on a debate with anyone, anytime, if they wish disagree with me. The difference between macarons and macaroons starts with pronunciation (and you will find audio on all relevant words at the end of this article) and extends to history, ingredients, technique, appearance, exclusivity, and price, and most importantly, taste and texture. I don’t care if the New York Times uses ‘macaroons’ as a translation of ‘macarons’ – they are wrong.
When you translate a word, you are describing the same thing in another language. If you ask me for the French word for ‘parsley’ (persil), you would not be impressed if you went to France and found that what you call parsley is in fact mint. And I could hardly defend myself by saying ‘well, they are both herbs, aren’t they?’ All macarons and macaroons have in common is that they are both cookies. Let me explain:
A macaroon is a cookie with a very distinct heritage. It seems to hail from Scotland originally, but if the genesis is lost in the mists of time, nevermind. We have the recipe. Egg-whites, sugar and coconut. These three ingredients could be tweaked by using syrup instead of sugar, or possibly another binder apart from egg-whites, or dipping the finished product in chocolate. But take away the sweetness, the chewyness, and the COCONUT, and you no longer have a macaroon. You have probably eaten macaroons, but if you can’t remember them, here is a photograph to jog your memory:
Now let me turn to the macarons. These are made with a meringue base consisting of egg-white and fine sugar, and finely ground ALMONDS. Almonds, not coconut! Although a macaroon does contain egg-whites and sugar, it does not require them to be made into a meringue. The meringue base is key to the macaron. And there is no history that I can find anywhere of a macaron being made with coconut, nor can I find any coconut flavored macarons in the inventory of today’s finest patissiers.
The first macarons appeared in France in the Middle Ages – numerous towns seem to claim their origin, with no clear victor in sight. What is clear is that the ingredients and shape have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Here is an extract I found on Wikepedia, from a French dictionary dated 1904, describing a macaron:
This confirms macarons are made with almonds, egg-whites and sugar, and as you can see, the shape is round and flat. There is no mention of coconut anywhere. The only other cookies macarons have something in common with are Italian amaretti biscuits – these are made with the same ingredients, but they are distinctly flavoured with apricot kernels, and their texture is crisp, rather than the melt in the mouth of macarons. In addition, macarons are usually (although NOT traditionally) sandwiched in pairs with a flavored buttercream, or other filling.
The grand pâtisserie and salon de thé of Paris, Ladurée, claims the distinction of being the first to think of coloring the macarons, and turning them into filled cookies. This is the innovation that changed macarons forever and propelled them to ‘rock star of the cookie world’ status. The recipe takes to color and adapts to different flavors readily, and the endless combinations ensure we never tire of this chic treat which is as visually appealing as it is delicious. In recent years, the popularity of macarons has increased dramatically in foodie circles, but fortunately for food snobs it’s delicate and difficult to make properly, so we are unlikely to find it on supermarket shelves.
Patissiers the world over vie with each to see who can create the most exotic, the most delicious, and yes, the most expensive. The great Parisian pastry shop, Ladurée, features these delectable seasonal flavors: chestnut and pear, red fruit (berries), cherry blossom (!!!), and milk chocolate. They also have a selection of regular flavors that includes vanilla, lemon and rose macarons.
I must digress: Ladurée always brings a tear to my eye. Not only is it a shop I would voluntarily imprison myself in, it is the cause of a lingering discord between my beloved youngest brother and I. While he was last in Paris, he telephoned me from one of the Ladurée stores to gloat that he was there and I was not! He doesn’t even like pastries and confectionery, but couldn’t resist the temptation to torment me with descriptions of macarons and more.
What he didn’t know is that Ladurée is not the only grand shop selling macarons in Paris anymore. There is a new baker in town: Legendary patissier to the stars, Pierre Hermé has a line-up that includes rose and jasmine, passion fruit and milk chocolate, and caramel and fleur de sel. His newest ‘Collection Éphémère’ (‘Ephemeral Collection’) includes macarons flavored with rose, vanilla and clove called ‘Jardin Secret’ (Secret Garden), and the extraordinary ‘Jardin Marin’ – a macaron scented with chanterelle mushrooms (girolles in French), green tea and lemon.
Be prepared – Monsieur Hermé does not exactly shy away from charging. Twelve of these divine little confections will set you back a whopping 26.50€. You can’t exactly afford to snaffle them down like doughnuts, but fortunately Monsieur Hermé has published a macaron cookbook, which may prove a little more economical if you develop a fetish for them.
As promised, here is a list of the pronunciations of words and names in the article. If you want to know more about these words, click on the link and have a look at the entry in the HowDoYouSayThatWord.com database.
Do you have any favorite macaron flavors? Or maybe a great recipe you’d like to share? If there are any additional names you want to know how to pronounce, email me, and I’ll add them with pleasure. I’d love to hear your comments, suggestions, and questions, as always!