French macarons are one of the most widely recognized items alongside croissants, berets, and baguettes. I’ve always loved eating them but recently enjoyed making them. These colorful pastries are perfectly smooth on top with raised feet, a chewy bite, and a decadent filling. But were they always this picture-perfect? Let’s explore the history and origin of the French macaron.
First things first, what is the difference between a macaron and a macaroon? The iconic French macaron has a smooth meringue base using almond flour, egg whites, sugar, and powdered sugar. In comparison, the macaroon has a rocky exterior with a coconut base. That’s a very different dessert if you mix up the two!
When I took a macaron baking class with my sister in Paris, we learned there were two different ways to make these treats: the French method and the Italian method. The main difference between these methods is how the meringue is prepared.
In the Italian method, you start with egg whites and sugar syrup to build the base. In the French way, you whisk egg whites and granulated sugar to create meringue with stiff peaks. The Italian method is supposed to produce a sturdier cookie, whereas the French way creates a light and decadent dessert. While French macarons are not easy to make by any means, I’ll choose their traditional way instead of how the Italians did it. No need to get all fancy and complicated with the sugar syrup!
What’s most interesting is that the macaron originated in Italy, not France, where it’s most famously known! The cookie was introduced to France in the 16th century when France’s King Henry II, Catherine de’ Medici, reigned queen of France. She was born in Italy and employed an Italian chef who introduced the recipe to the French. Before this, Venetian monasteries in Italy had been producing this cookie since the 8th century! While the French macaron is extremely popular and on-trend now, kitchens have been making this cookie for over 1300 years!
The original macarons were single cookies. Their we crusts were cracked, exterior was brown, and colors were void of food coloring. Asking what flavor they were was unheard of.
Different regions in France have other origin stories of the macaron. They all want to lay claim that they were the original recipe. One of the most famous stories involves “the macaron sisters,” two nuns who baked the cookie in the Lorraine region of France.
The nuns fled from their convent to the city of Nancy to seek refuge during the French Revolution. They found accommodations with a doctor who lived in the area. To help pay for their housing, they baked macarons to sell to the town’s people. These macarons are now known as “Macarons de Nancy”. One shop in Nancy still bakes these today using the original (and secret) recipe.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the desert transformed into the pastry we know and love today. At this time, one pastry chef, Pierre Desfontaines, had the revolutionary idea to put two macaron cookies together and fill them with jam and jelly. But it wasn’t just any pastry shop. It was at Ladurée, now considered ubiquitous with macarons. And the rest, they say, is history, as Ladurée is the most well-known macaron shop in the world.
Baking French macarons at home is an investment in both time and resources. They have a reputation of being difficult to make, and there are plenty of Pinterest fail photos on the internet. That’s probably why macarons are so expensive to buy compared to other desserts!
An average batch of macarons takes around three hours to complete. It takes time to make the stiff peaks from the egg whites, to fold the remaining ingredients in gently, and to let them sit at room temperature before popping them in the oven. All that work for only 18 cookies doesn’t seem worth it until you taste them, of course!
To make baking macarons at home more complicated, the internet is full of so many “do and don’t” tips. “Do: wait for your eggs to be at room temperature. Don’t: use liquid food coloring.” Every food blogger has their tips and tricks for the “perfect macaron.” It can be confusing to keep up! But the most important thing is to try. After some trial and a lot of error, you can enjoy this light, and airy treat yourself. And if you can’t buy them from Ladurée, homemade always tastes better!
I don’t know about you, but I think my oven will give Ladurée a run for their business.