Macarons, Macaroons, Macaroni
The curious history.
We see in the Washington recipe the rose water and musk of its medieval Arab antecedents. Even as this recipe was being written, however, modern French cuisine began to evolve out of its medieval antecedents, as cooks replaced imported medieval spices with local herbs.
The chef who was most important in guiding this transition was François Pierre de la Varenne, and the first modern recipe for macaroons comes from the 1652 edition of his cookbook, The French Cook, in which he eliminates orange water and rose water from the earlier instantiations:
Macaron (“La maniere de faire du macaron”)
Get a pound of shelled almonds, set them to soak in some cool water and wash them until the water is clear; drain them. Grind them in a mortar moistening them with three egg whites instead of orange blossom water, and adding in four ounces of powdered sugar. Make your paste which on paper you cut in the shape of a macaroon, then cook it, but be careful not to give it too hot a fire. When cooked, take it out of the oven and put it away in a warm, dry place.
Distinct French recipes for La Varenne-style macaroons developed in places such as Amiens, Melun, Joyeuse, and Niorts, and in many convents, where they became a specialty by the 18th century. After the French revolution, macaroons were commercialized by sisters leaving convents and starting shops such as the Maison des Soeurs Macarons in Nancy.
By the 17th century, then, the Sicilian maccarruni had become two very distinct foods: maccherone (in Italian; macaroni in English) meaning pasta, and macaron in French or macaroon in English, meaning an almond cookie. Despite the regional variations at these bakeries across France, from 1650 all the way until about 1900, macaron and macaroon both meant what the Larousse Gastronomique describes as:
[A] small, round biscuit (cookie), crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites.
Then, late in the 19th century, two innovations lead to the modern macaroon/macaron divide. In America, a fad developed in the late 1800s for an exotic new food from India: coconut. Everyone was making trendy new desserts: coconut cream pie, coconut custard, and ambrosia (originally made from oranges, powdered sugar, and shredded coconut). Recipes for another of these coconut concoctions, coconut macaroons, appear at about this time, especially in Jewish cookbooks. Here's the recipe from the first Jewish cookbook in America, Esther Levy's 1871 Jewish Cookery Book, in which the almond paste heretofore traditional in macaroons is replaced by grated coconut:
COCOANUT MACAROONS – To one grated cocoanut add its weight in sugar, and the white of one egg, beaten to a snow; stir it well, and cook a little; then wet your hands and mould it into small oval cakes; grease a paper and lay them on; bake in a gentle oven.
By the 1890s, coconut macaroons appear in many American cookbooks, and rapidly become popular as a Passover food for Jews since they don't contain flour. Matso manufacturers like Streit's and Manischevitz began selling almond and coconut macaroons for Passover in the 1930s, and coconut macaroons became the best-selling flavor or version in America.
Just after coconut macaroons first appear in American cookbooks, the French have their own aha moment. Macarons, at that time, were often sold in pairs with the flat sides together. A Parisian baker (Claude Gerbet and Pierre Desfontaines both claim credit) had the idea of creating a sandwich cookie by putting almond paste or ganache between the two individual macarons. The new cookie was called “le macaron parisien” or “le macaron Gerbet” and was quickly popularized by Desfontaines’ cousin, who owned the pastry shop and tea salon Ladurée. Today both the macaron parisien and versions of the traditional single macaron are popular in France.
In the United States, the word macaron refers only to the new ganache sandwich cookie, leaving macaroon to describe the coconut cookie, while of course macaroni for us now means only the dried elbow pasta. It used to have a secondary meaning: In 18th-century England, rich young hipsters sported outlandish hairstyles (very tall powdered wigs with tiny caps on top) and affected clothing. They were called Macaronis because on their travels in Italy they acquired a taste for pasta, an exotic foreign food fad of the 18th century. If you’ve ever heard the song “Yankee Doodle,” this should sound familiar. The chorus mocks a disheveled "Yankee" soldier whose attempt to look sharp was to "stick a feather in his hat and call it macaroni."
Our recent obsession with macarons, like the earlier fad for pasta immortalized in Yankee Doodle, reminds us that great food traditions are often created at the borders between cultures, as we borrow and adapt the recipes of our neighbors.
Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford University and writes the blog The Language of Food.