What is the difference between a macaroon and a macaron? A lot! But they are both delicious treats with recipes that call for egg whites as a base. Below is a history of the macaroon vs. macaron story. And how both sweet delights share a surprisingly similar origin.
The Short Story
Here's the CliffsNotes version of the macaroon vs. macaron explanation.
Macaroons (pronounced mak-uh-ROON), are slightly crunchy, chewy, coconut-laced treats. The simple-to-make drop cookies bake into lightly golden clusters with tiny peaks of flaked coconut sticking out in every which direction. While popularized in the late 1800s when coconut first landed in America, macaroons earned notoriety as a wheat-free treat perfect for Jews keeping kosher at Passover.
Macarons (pronounced mah-kuh-ROHN in your best French accent) are small, flat, round almond meringue pastries with a crispy outer shell and pleasantly chewy interior. For the most popular presentation macarons parisien, two meringue shells are sandwiched together with a sweet, scratch-made filling. Think vanilla bean crème pâttisière, lemon curd, raspberry jam, and soft chocolate ganache.
And while at first glance macaroons and macarons couldn't be more different, the fact of the matter is, they hail from the same history.
And it has every bit to do with macaroni.
The Ancient History
Yes, macaroni. As in pasta we Americans consume in large quantities slathered in mystery cheese from a box.
Cookies of Arabia
Even before the year 1,000 Common Era, Arabs arrived in the Mediterranean region of Europe, namely the island of Sicily at the tip of Italy. Medieval Muslims brought a variety of new ingredients to Italy, along with the practice of crafting almond-based desserts. Italians smartly integrated Arab culinary techniques and ingredients with their own.
The Maccarruni (Macaroni) Madness
Ancient Sicilians called dishes of all kinds with ground-up ingredients, whether sweet or savory, maccarruni. Theories suggest the durum flour dumplings described in early cookbooks would've resembled modern-day gnocchi. And desserts with ground almonds, a precursor to marzipan.
Enter the French (you knew this was coming).
Winning Over the West
Good food travels fast. So it's no surprise by the middle of the 16th century Italy's sweet and savory maccarruni made its way across Western Europe. The French called sweet almond maccarruni by the name macaron. But the English (and other Europeans) at the time pronounced the same word macaroon.
And this was likely the beginning of what would become our 21st-century deliberations. But both words, whether with sexy French pronunciation or the owl-sounding English inflection, referred to the precursor for the French macaron as we know it today.
The Original Almond Macaron
This original macaron from medieval times was a simple baked biscuit (cookie) of ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites. A crunchy, almond cookie with a crackled appearance. While a feat for the time, but nothing to write home about in this day and age.
If I had to guess, it seems the French took one look at the one-dimensional, almond cookies covered in cracks and saw room for improvement. And they ultimately perfected macarons with French meringue.
By first whipping raw egg whites with sugar to a voluminous, thick state, the French took maccarruni almond desserts to a literal higher level. It's also very possible the Italians were the ones who first incorporated meringue into almond desserts. They do, after all, claim a namesake meringue like the French. But I don't think it's a complete coincidence we call them French macarons.
A variety of personalities are cited in historical accounts as having contributed to the French macaron's transformation. And the present-day macaroon vs. macaron debate.
From two sisters in the village of Nancy to monks to the owner of a Paris tea salon. The latter of which, Louis Ernest Ladurée, claims his grandson, Pierre Desfontaines, was the first to press the bottoms of two macarons together around a filling of ganache. Circa the mid-1800s, the creation was eventually designated macaron parisien.
But whatever the decade or century or people, first whipping up a meringue then folding in ground almonds and perhaps more sugar proved the truly magical moment. By the early 1900s, French (and probably a few Italian) chefs had taken a mundane and dense cookie and transformed it. Unlike its Arab forebear, the macaron became an avant-garde disc of almond pastry heaven. One with an appearance, taste, and texture worthy of celebrity.
The chefs to France's elite continued to improve the macaron as industrialization provided for more refined ingredients. And so did kitchen tools like whisks and electric mixers. These allowed cooks to whip raw egg whites and sugar to shiny new heights and stability. And create the frilly, coveted bottoms on the baked macaron. Among chefs and bakers, this aesthetic is known as le pied, or foot, in French.
By the early 20th century, macarons were beautiful, colorful, delicate almond delights. One with a lightly crispy shell and chewy interior hugging a variety of creamy fillings, no less. The modern macaron had arrived.
Now enter America. And the final piece of history that answers the macaroon vs. macaron question.
Relatively about the time that Paris's Ladurée popularized macaron parisien, coconut arrived in the United States from India. True to form, American chefs and home cooks put that $%#@ in everything.
Cream pies, fluffy white cakes, and rich custards became coconut meccas. And so did almond macarons.
It seems the imperative of using a firm meringue base for almond cookies didn't catch as much wind in the States. So when American cooks swapped out the ground almonds for a bulk of flakey coconut, the final lines of demarcation were drawn.
To this day, kosher foods manufacturer Manischewitz sells almond-flavored coconut macaroons in a can. So that tells me that when early 20th century cooks swapped in the coconut, they didn't necessarily ditch the almond entirely. Although there is still great debate as to whether almond belongs in a coconut macaroon. Especially among Jews who keep kosher for Passover.
Arabs invented the macaron. Italy stole it. France perfected it. America ruined it.
The Delicious Details
If we eliminate all the twists and turns of appearance and flavorings, macaroons and macarons are actually very similar on a basic level. Egg whites and sugar are the bulk of any recipe for either.
The original coconut macaroon recipe called for only grated coconut, sugar, and an egg white, at least according to Esther Levy's Jewish Cookery Book published in 1871. Levy's method is basically a coconut version of the ancient almond rock cakes baked by the Arabs and early Europeans.
As progress would have it 20th-century America, and its love for factory food, marketed the coconut macaron into a sugar-laden clump of coconut. Specifically, with the addition of sweetened condensed milk as an "essential" ingredient. Hint: it's not.
- egg whites
- sweetened condensed milk (or granulated sugar, in lesser quantity)
- shredded or flake coconut
- vanilla or almond extract (or both!)
- pinch of salt
- citrus zest, chopped nuts, chocolate chips
- chocolate, for dipping or decorating, optional
To whip up a quick batch of coconut macaroons, you simply mix all of the ingredients together except the egg whites. Then after foaming the whites, fold them gently into the dry ingredients. Scoop the dough onto a lined baking pan, bake around 325° F until golden brown, and devour the coconutty goodness! That's all folks.
The ingredients for macarons are closer to the original almond maccarruni than coconut macaroons. You will find macarons made with ground pistachios, hazelnuts, or other tree nuts. But almonds are the norm.
- egg whites
- granulated sugar
- blanched almonds or almond flour
- confectioner's sugar
- pinch of salt, optional
- food coloring gel, optional
- extracts and flavorings, optional
While the ingredient lists may be nearly identical, it's the preparation methods that create notable distinctions between macaroons and macarons.
French macaron shells are so lightly crisp, delicate, and lovely because of the macaronage method of folding almond flour and confectioner's sugar into a firm meringue. And the stability of the meringue is the key. The firmer the peak, the more sturdy the meringue.
Meringue ratios typically call for equal parts by weight of egg whites and sugar. Sometimes less, and often twice as much sugar as egg whites. Which is why it's more stable. The sugar helps break down the proteins in the egg white. And the proteins then form new bonds, trapping air as they go.
Side Note. While many coconut macaroon recipes call for beating or frothing the egg whites before folding them into the coconut mixture, whipping alone does not make a meringue. Not to mention the truckloads of shredded coconut called for in most macaroon recipes. That bulk really puts a damper on any potential for a delicate texture.
Making French Macarons
French macarons are not cookies. Full stop.
Macarons are pastries.
I write this to give anyone who attempts to create these beautiful, delectable desserts at home their due credit. It takes technique. And a bit of know-how. Hundreds of years in the making, no less.
Cookies are a simple mix and bake process, for the most part. French macarons are a more labor-intensive baking adventure. But I believe any home baker can whip up a beautiful batch if equipped with good information. However, a five-year-old can make decent drop cookies with little guidance. And therein lies the distinction.
If you would like to join me down the rabbit hole of how to make macarons, start here. Or sign-up below for my free email series, French Macarons: Simplified. The internet is loaded with bad information on how to make macarons, even from seemingly reliable sources. I learned how to make French macarons from a French pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. So I feel pretty good about my advice.
French Macaron Recipes
Here are a few popular French macaron flavors, and inspiration on how to create your own macs at home. Fair warning, the pursuit can become addicting.
Macaroons and macarons can be confusing! The two desserts share a tangled, mysterious history beginning with the Arabs and ending in America with the arrival of coconut.
Pronunciation is also a factor as to why people confuse macaroons with macarons, and visa-versa. Historically in the English language, macaron was pronounced with a long "O" sound. Which sounds like macaroon, what Americans came to call coconut drop cookies.
So to clarify, macarons are almond meringue pastries sandwiched together with creamy fillings. Macaroons are coconut drop cookies. If you landed here but want all the dirty details, do scroll up.
I think the answer any food historian would give here is... both! In medieval times Arab nations arrived in Southern Italy, bringing with them new exotic ingredients, including almonds. And a knack for crafting desserts similar to the sweet almond paste we now call marzipan.
The Italians blended many Muslim culinary techniques with their own, and these practices spread throughout Western Europe over time. The French are credited with refining the ancient macaron cookie, and specifically for sandwiching two shells together with a creamy ganache.
French macarons can cost a pretty penny for two reasons. First, they are a labor-intensive pastry that requires multiple steps, and a skilled baker or at least one armed with the proper know-how. Two, while the basic ingredients for macaron shells are not too expensive - egg whites, sugar, and almonds - the fillings are often crafted with premium or exotic ingredients.
Perhaps the best response to the matter of macaroon vs. macaron is that the latter requires skill, persistence, and patience. And the former doesn't.
While coconut macaroons may be a perfectly lovely treat, the simple drop cookies don't ask too much of the baker. A modern, young by historical accounts, accessible recipe for all. Made in America.
On the contrary, beautiful, perfectly petite macarons can be an elusive pursuit for the misinformed professional or amateur home baker. A centuries-old dessert once exclusive, that's now coveted by the bourgeoisie. Crafted to perfection over centuries by the hands and ambition of dedicated culinarians.
Between the two, we have a maccarruni for every mood. And from where I stand in my kitchen, history got it right this time. For once.
Leave a Reply