Greetings, food history lovers!
Welcome to my first installment of the High Tea Special that I promised in my Earl Grey post. If you may remember, I’m doing this in conjunction with a High Tea for Habitat that I’m hosting this Saturday.
Today we’re going to be looking into the history of the macaron – a magically delicious French biscuit that is typically filled with a rich ganache. Are you as excited as I am?
Macarons are typically known as being traditional French biscuits, however, evidence suggests that they actually originated in Italy and were introduced to France when Catherine de’Medici married King Henry II in 1543. When she moved to France, it is believed that she brought along her cooks and bakers and introduced a variety of pastries to the French.
If you haven’t heard of the name de’Medici, I highly recommend that you read up on them. They’re one of the original bad ass Italian crime families.
Interestingly, the Italian origin of the Macaron can actually be found within the name itself. You may have noticed that it is incredibly similar to macaroni, and this is no coincidence. To quote the Men in Black 3 ballad by Pitball, “To understand the future, you gotta go back in time.” As such, this etymology-rich section of the tale begins in 827 when Arab troops from Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) landed in Sicily, establishing a Muslim emirate that introduced many new foods to Europe.
Along with lemons, rice and pistachios, the Arabs also brought a rich repertoire of nut-based sweets, including almond paste candies wrapped in dough. Those familiar with macaron creation will already know that ground almonds or almond power are a key ingredient to the biscuits.
Another important Sicilian food tradition at this time was of course pasta, and it managed to merge with the almond tradition, resulting in foods with characteristics of both. Early pastas were often sweet, and could be fried or baked, as well as boiled. Many recipes from this period have both savory cheese and a sweet almond-paste versions. Their primary purpose was to be foods appropriate for Lent. For example, the almond pastry caliscioni had both almond and cheese variations, and was the ancestor of the calzone.
Out of this culinary morass arose the word maccarruni, the Sicilian ancestor of our modern words macaroni, macaroon, and macaron. We don’t know whether maccarruni came from Arabic or derives from another Italian dialect word. But like other dough products of the period, it’s probable that the word maccarruni referred to two distinct but similar sweet, doughy foods, one resembling gnocchi, and the other more like marzipan.
With the etymology lesson behind us, let’s fast forward to 1792. Despite the introduction of the macaron to France some two centuries earlier, it only gained fame when two Carmelite nuns baked and sold them in order to support themselves during the French Revolution. These macarons were a simple combination of ground almonds, egg whites and sugar. No flavours. No filling.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that we saw the creation of the modern-day macaron by Pierre Desfontaines. He was the pastry chef and owner of the Parisian café, Ladurée. He decided to take two macarons and fill them with ganache, and it was an instant success. Today, Ladurée continues to be at the forefront of macaron creation and distribution. No longer a humble almond cookie, the macaron has transformed into a versatile treat, coming in a variety of colours and flavours. With each new season, Ladurée pays tribute to its most famous creation by inventing a new flavour.
In recent years, macarons have gained in popularity world-wide. Any self-respecting and trendy cafe or bakery have them on offer. Ladurée itself has gone global, its most recent cafe opening in Sydney.
Before I finish, I should probably point out that macarons are not to be confused with macaroons. Let’s examine the differences
The shells are often made of egg whites, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond powder or ground almond, and food coloring and usually filled with a flavored buttercream, ganache or jam.
Macaroons also call for egg whites in addition to ground or powdered nuts or coconut. They look a little something like this:
In closing, I propose an important philosophical question – What is your favourite macaron flavour?
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