It's a beautiful spring day here in San Francisco. The wild garlic is blooming, the top of Bernal Hill is covered in fennel, and everyone is celebrating spring. The stores are full of marshmallow peeps for Easter, Janet's family just swept her grandparents' grave for the Qingming Festival, the Persian New Year Festival, Nowruz, just passed, and my family is getting ready for Passover, which means it's time for coconut macaroons, shown above.
Photograph by Stephanie Shih.
Used by permission
Of course, fads, whether modern or historical, are not confined just to desserts. In fashion, there was a trend amoung rich young hipsters in 18th century England to wear outlandish hair styles (very tall powdered wigs with tiny caps on top) and affected clothing (shown below). They were called Macaronis, likely because on their travels in Italy they acquired a taste for pasta (maccheroni is a generic word for pasta in Italian). The song Yankee Doodle, written around this time to poke fun at the tattered colonial troops, mocks a disheveled "Yankee" soldier whose attempt to look sharp was to "stick a feather in his hat and call it macaroni".
"Yankee Doodle" was appropriated by the revolutionary troops, and the song quickly became popular, no different than modern trends like the 1995 dance song "La Macarena" by the Spanish band Los Del Río, which almost instantly had millions of drunk people in discos around the world awkwardly waving their arms around their body.
But I digress. What are the antecedents of the macaron trend? Were coconut macaroons the original? Or did they derive instead from the Parisian macaron?
It turns out that both are new fads, invented around 1900 by modifying the original almond cookie called macaroon in English or macaron in French. From the Larousse Gastronomique:
Macaroon: A small, round biscuit (cookie), crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites. Macaroons are sometimes flavoured with coffee, chocolate, nuts, or fruit and then joined together in pairs.
The original macaroons (or macarons), then, are almond meringue cookies; exactly what are called amaretti or ricciarelli in Italian or amarguillos in Spanish, and shown on the right. The Parisian macaron is a sandwich cookie that joins two macarons with a filling, while the coconut macaroon replaces the ground almonds with shredded coconut.
But it turns out that all of these: macarons, macaroni, coconut macaroons, and perhaps even the Macarena, have the same origin, rooted in the great meetings of the Islamic and Christian culinary traditions in the Middle Ages.
One tradition is the rich repertoire of sweets that originated in Zoroastrian Persia. One of these was called fālūdhaj, a honey and starch candy eaten by the Sassanid kings of Persia to celebrate the Persian new year, Nowrūz.
Like sikbāj and other other pre-Islamic Persian foods, fālūdhaj was adapted by the chefs of the Muslim Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad, and a number of nut and sugar confections developed: fālūdhaj and lausinaj, made of almonds and sugar, and fustuqiyya (or muqarrada, meaning `cut-up' or `clipped') made of pistachios and sugar. The recipes appear throughout the 13th century Muslim world, from the Andalusian Manuscrito Anonimo in the west to the Kitāb al-Tabīkh, (The Book of Dishes) in the east. Here's a recipe from the latter, from Charles Perry's English translation:
Fālūdhaj: Take a pound of sugar and a third of a pound of almonds and pound them fine together... Take a third of a pound of sugar, dissolve it with half an ounce of rose-water on a quiet fire, then take it up. When it has cooled off, throw the pounded sugar and almonds on it and knead them with it.... .... [The paste is then wrapped in dough and soaked in sesame oil and rose-water syrup]
Another important food of the Islamic world was pasta, called itriyya in 10th century Arabic. Dough products were also eaten in the Greek and Roman worlds. A kind of fritter dish made from sheets of fried dough called lagana dated back to the 1st century BC, and there were many gruels such as a Byzantine Greek gruel called makaria (μακαρία), from the Greek makarios (μακάριος) 'blessed', eaten as a funeral food.
These two food traditions came together on the island of Sicily. The Romans had planted durum wheat, and made Sicily a breadbasked of their Empire. The Byzantine period brought the Greek language and Orthodoxy. The Arabs landed in 827 and made Palermo the second largest city in the world, introducing paper to Europe, and bringing sugar cane, pistachios, lemons, rice, and oranges. By 1072 the Normans had conquered Sicily (and England), and for a brief period the rule of Roger I and Roger II of Sicily was an experiment in mutual tolerance, at least compared to the rest of Europe; Greek, Arabic, and Latin were all official languages, government officials were drawn from all three cultures and Muslims and Jews were governed by their own laws. Above and right is the Cathedral of Monreale, showing its beautiful combination of Norman, Byzantine and Arab styles.
Sicily is also where modern durum wheat pasta was developed. By 1154, Muhammad al-Idrisi, the Moroccan-born geographer of king Roger II, describes Sicily as an important center of pasta (itriyya), exported throughout the Mediterranean world, to both Muslim and Christian countries. (The myth that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China was invented in the 1920's in the Minnesota Macaroni Journal; By the time Polo returned from China in 1296, pasta had been a major export commodity for well over a century.) By 1200 pasta had branched out of Sicily. Even in France, Jewish documents, like the The Siddur Rashi, attributed to the 11th French scholar Rashi, use the word vermiseles, derived via old French vermeseil from Italian vermicelli, to describe dough boiled as pasta or fried in fritters.
chremsel, which still describes a dough fritter, by now a sweet matso-meal pancake (shown above from Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisted) that is eaten at Passover.
The modern word "macaroni/macaroon" (maccarruni in its original Sicilian form, maccherone in standard Italian) first appears in writing in 1279, and is quickly used for both meanings. Alas, we just don't know where it comes from. Arabic is likely; Italian food scholar Anna Martellotti suggests that it comes from the pistachio marzipan muqarrada mentioned above and Clifford Wright suggests a different Arabic etymology from a Tunisian word. Others (including the OED) suggest it may come from the Greek makaria funeral gruel, or perhaps from the Italian dialect word maccare, meaning 'to crush'. But none of these etymologies are universally accepted, and we may never know.
What most scholars seem to agree on is that the ancestor of macaroon or macaroni was a word used in various languages (French, Catalan, and to some extent English and Italian) for two distinct foods, both made of a paste with rose water and egg whites and sweet spices: one a kind of marzipan (almond paste with rose water, egg whites, and sugar) and the other a kind of gnocchi (flour paste with rose water, egg whites, no sugar).
Photo © the John Rylands library
Makerouns. Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh, and kerue it on peces, and cast hym on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. Take chese and grate it and butter imelte, cast bynethen and aboven as losyns.
[Make a thin sheet of dough, and cut it in pieces and place them in boiling water; boil well. Take cheese and grate it, and melted butter, and arrange below and above like lasagne.]
By 1465 the word maccherone in Italy had many regional meanings, but one of them was the tubular pasta with cheese that a modern 8-year-old would recognize, although with the addition of rose water and "sweet spices". Here's Maestro Martino of Como's Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) (ca. 1465). recipe for
Take some very white flour and make a dough using egg whites and rose water... then shape it into long, thin sticks, the size of your palm and as thin as hay. Then take an iron rod as long as your palm or longer, and as thin as string, and place it on top of each stick, and then roll with both hands over a table; then remove the iron rod and the macaroni will be perforated in the middle..... cook them in water or meat broth; and place them on platters with generous quantities of grated cheese, fresh butter, and sweet spices.
These recipes are quickly translated, and by 1505 this recipe appears in French, in Lyons, under the name macarons en potaige. But pasta never caught on in England and France, and by a few hundred years later seems to have disappeared. Only in the 18th century did eating macaroni became first an exotic habit of British dandys, and then eventually a more widely popular food in both England and America.
Simultaneously with the expansion of pasta out of Sicily and around Europe in the late Middle Ages, various dishes based on almond paste also started to appear. The most popular almond paste dish in Europe was marzipan, made of almond paste, sugar, rose water, and sometimes egg whites. The word marzipan first appeared in Italian, in 1343, as marzapane, and in English in 1516 as marchpane. Food historians generally believe that the name comes from the Arabic (and Persian) word mauthaban, which described the boxes or jars that this kind of candy was imported in, and indeed the earliest uses of the word marzipan seems to refer to a pastry casing with a marzipan filling. Here's a recipe (without egg whites) for the filling from Martino's s Art of Cooking:
Marzipan. Peel the almonds well and crush... When you crush them, wet them with a bit of rose water so that they do not purge their oil. ...take an equal weight of sugar as of almonds... and add also an ounce or two of good rose water; and incorporate all these things together well...
Marzipan very early became a food eaten for celebrations at Christmas and Easter, and was often produced by convents, including the convent of San Clemente in Toledo, Spain, and the convent of the Martorana in Palermo, Sicily, shown at right.
Then somewhere perhaps between 1450 and 1650 a version of baked marzipan that is much lighter, with more eggwhites, began to appear in France, Italy and possibly Spain. This new baked marzipan generally had only 3 or 4 ingredients: almonds, sugar, egg whites, and sometimes rose water or orange blossom water.
In France, the word macaron is used for this food (as well as for the pasta). In Italy, where the word maccherone by now only means pasta, these new lighter marzipan cookies had various names. In Sienna they were called marzapanetti, 'little marzipans', in Lombardy they were called amaretti, `little bitters', because they were made with bitter almonds. A name referring to bitter almonds was also used in Spain, or at least it was by the following century, where the 1780 edition of the Real Academia Española's "Diccionario de la lengua castellana" tells us that this cookie was called amargo `bitter', or later amarguillo `little bitter', a name that is still used. The same cookie is also popular in modern Turkey, where it is called Acıbadem kurabiyesi, 'bitter almond cookie', and Alan Davidson tells us that many macaroon-like almond cookies are eaten throughout the Maghreb.
We can't be absolutely certain whether this new lighter, baked version of marzipan had been created in Sicily (or elsewhere in Italy) and then spread to France, Spain and Turkey, or whether it was France or Spain was the original source. Alternatively, the idea of making a puffy baked marzipan might have developed in different regions independently, a possibility that is consistent with the widely different macaroon traditions that exist in different regions of both Italy and France. In Italy, there are different traditions for dry amaretti (like amaretti di Saronno, above), soft amaretti (amaretti morbidi) which have a higher quantity of water and may contain honey, and others like the dry bruti ma buoni (ugly but good), which are rough lumps with pieces of hazelnuts or almonds, or the soft ricciarelli (above) which are traditionally oval-shaped and have orange peel or zest and sometimes honey. In France, the Larousse Gastronomique mentions both crisp (macarons croquants) and soft macaroons (macarons moelleux, and diverse recipes from many regions, including Amiens, Melun, Montmorillion, Nancy, and Niorts. In Cormery, for example, batter is piped into a circle (right) resulting in a donut shape after baking (below).
Convents and monasteries like Cormery Abbey were instrumental in the preservation and transmission of recipes for sweets like macaroons. The Larousse Gastronomique tells us that by the eighteenth century macaroons were a specialty of a number of convents and their recipes were quickly commercialized; in Nancy two sisters left the convent of the Holy Sacrament and started Maison des Soeurs Macarons, while in Saint-Emilion, Cindy Meyers' lovely article in Gastronomica tells us , the Fabrique de Macarons Blanchez bakery sells macarons according to the "Authentic Macaron Recipe of the Old Nuns of Saint-Emilion".
The macaron doesn't appear in print, however, until 1552, in Rabelais, in passing. Shortly thereafter, the first English language recipe in 1611 defines the English word "macaroon" as derived from the French "macaron" which are
"compounded of Sugar, Almonds, Rosewater, and Muske, pounded together and baked with a gentle fire".
The earliest complete recipe is in English, in Martha Washington's BOOKE of COOKERY, a manuscript handwritten in England sometime in the 17th century (Karen Hess suggests that it is a fair copy of an original written well before the 1650s) that Martha Washington's family brought with them to the new world:
TO MAKE MACKROONS
Take a pound & halfe of almonds, blanch & beat them very small in a stone morter with rosewater. put to them a pound of sugar, & ye whites of 4 eggs, & beat ym together. & put in 2 grayns of muske ground with a spoonfull or 2 of rose water. beat ym together till yr oven is as hot as for manchet, then put them on wafers & set them in on A plat. after a while, take them out. [yn when] yr oven is cool, set [ym in] againe & dry ym ...
The Washington macaroon, with its rose water and muske, is a medieval recipe redolent of its Arab sources. Even as this recipe was being written, however, modern French cuisine began to evolve out of its medieval antecedents, replacing imported medieval spices with local herbs. The chef who was most important in guiding this transition was La Varenne, and the first completely modern recipe for macaroons comes from his famous 1651 cookbook, The French Cook, in which he eliminates the orange water and rose water from the earlier recipes:
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.
For the next few centuries, from 1650 to 1900, the word macaroon meant this recipe of La Varenne's, defined above by the modern Larousse Gastronomique as a "small, round cookie, crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites."
Then two things happened around the turn of the last century, one in France and one in America. The French innnovation was related to the fact that macaroons and amaretti were often sold in pairs with the flat sides together. A new recipe added a filling in between the two, an innovation that is often credited to the famous Parisian pastry shop and tea salon Ladurée. From their web site:
Pierre Desfontaines, second cousin of Louis Ernest Ladurée, who at the beginning of the 20th century first thought of taking two macaroon shells and joining them with a delicious ganache filling.
The second innovation happened in America only a few years before Desfontaines added ganache to his macarons, and was linked to the new fad for coconut. Coconut palms had been introduced to Florida in the 1880s, and efficient methods had just been developed for processing shredded coconut for baking. Everyone was making the hip new desserts from this period: coconut cream pie, coconut custard, and ambrosia (in its original form: oranges, powdered sugar, and shredded coconut). Recipes for another of these trendy new coconut innovations, 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 is simply replaced by grated coconut (cocoanut):
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.
In these Jewish cookbooks macaroons often appear in the Passover section. Since flour (except in the form of matzah) cannot be eaten during Passover, macaroons are kosher for Passover. By the late 1930's or early 1940's, Alan Adler of Aron Streit Inc. tells me, Streit's began to sell coconut macaroons for the Jewish Passover market, and coconut became the best-selling macaroons for both Streit's and Manischewitz.
Streits sells coconut macaroons only at Passover time, making them (and chremsel) only the most recent in a long chain of springtime treats, preceded by the Easter marzipan lambs and simnel cakes of Europe and all the way back to the honey pastries eaten for the Persian New Year by the Zoroastrian Persians. And it's nice to know that the link with spring continues; this spring Miette's, our local confiserie in Hayes Valley, is offering macaron happy hour. A dollar each, from 5-7pm. Maybe I'll see you there?
Oh, I almost forgot to mention The Macarena. The song got its name from the eponymous region of Seville, which itself is named from the old Arabic word for the gate to that region of the city, Bab–al-Makrin. The gate was named for a village called Makrin or Makrina outside the gate, which was probably named for some landowner named Macarius, from the same Greek word makarios, μακάριος, 'blessed', that gave us the funeral gruel that is one possible source of the word macaroon.
Or possibly not. Whichever it is, I wish you all a lovely spring full of delicious treats.