A truly Parisian macaron is elegant, stylish, colourful and filled with deliciousness. Sit in a salon de thé in Paris with your rose flavoured macaron and a cup of aromatic tea while you take tiny bites of heaven. France has become famous for this fashionable biscuit, but the pretty little pastel coloured macaron we see today is a fairly recent creation. So where did it come from, and why is the macaron so popular?
origins of the macaron
The word ‘macaroni’ and ‘macaron’ are obviously very similar. But wait, you say, one is pasta, the other is a dainty biscuit. In the Italy of the Middle Ages, maccherone referred to a type of pasta which was prepared with flour, egg-whites and rose-water, and eaten with sweet spices, sugar, butter, or grated cheese. But it also referred to almond paste sweets similar to marzipan.
It is possible that these sweets, made of almonds, sugar, and egg whites, had arrived in Italy with the Jews who had been forced out of Spain under the Alhambra Decree of 1492. It was a Jewish tradition to eat these almond sweets at Passover, being completely free of leavening or flour. Once the Italians ate these sugary, nutty biscuits, their popularity would have risen quickly.
It is generally accepted these maccherone biscuits were likely brought to France by the Italian born Queen Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II. She arrived at her new home in 1533 and bought her preferred Italian chefs with her to the palace. At this time the cookies were still fairly simple. They were made with almonds, sugar, egg whites and rosewater or orange blossom water, and care had to be taken so they wouldn’t crumble when baked.
In 1653 a small book was published called Le Pâtissier François; or The French Pastry Chef. Its author, François Pierre de La Varenne, was one of the foremost chefs in France, having cooked in royal and aristocratic kitchens. His books are considered to be the first comprehensive French cookbooks. Varenne’s recipe for making macarons went like this:
Take one pound of peeled Almonds; steep them in fresh water, and wash them until the water be cleare, drain them, and stamp them in a mortar; besprinkle them with three whites of Eggs, in stead of water of Orange-flowers, put in a quartern of Sugar in powder, and make your paste, which you shall cut upon the paper after the form of Maccaroon; bake it, but take heed you give it not the fire too hot after it is baked, take it out of the Oven, and set it up in a place warm and dry.Taken from the English translation, The French Cook, 1673
everyone loves macarons
There is a story that in 1581 there was a sumptuous royal wedding between the Duke Anne of Joyeuse and Marguerite de Vaudémont, where these subtle yet delicious macarons were served. The Duke was said to have been so enamoured he gave the recipe to the inhabitants of the village of Joyeuse. Its location in the Ardèche region with a Mediterranean climate meant there were already many almond trees, and thus the tradition of the Macarons de Joyeuse, an ardéchoise specialty, was born, and continues today.
Local legend believes the macaron played a starring role in 1660 in the village of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Close to the Spanish border, the village was host to the marriage of Louis XIV and the Infanta of Spain Marie-Thérèse. Apparently, the royal family and all their attendants fell in love with the delicate macaron biscuits produced by Monsieur Adam, a local boulanger. The descendants of M. Adam have continued his proud tradition to this day with their pastry shop, Maison Adam.
The city of Nancy, in the north eastern province of Lorraine, also claims to have popularised the crumbly biscuit. According to legend, the Sisters of the Abbey of Les Dames du Saint-Sacrement in the centre of Nancy were known for their baking of a wide range of pastries, including the macaron. In 1792, however, the French Revolution broke out and all religious institutions were abolished. Two of the Sisters, Marguerite and Marie-Elisabeth, sought refuge with a local family. With no other means of supporting themselves, they very sensibly decided to use their baking skills to make and sell macarons. Les Sœurs Macarons (The Macaron Sisters) were soon very well known. You can still visit them in Nancy (not the original Sisters, obviously…)
Contrary to what you may have seen in the Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, the French queen did not surround herself with plates piled high with brightly coloured macarons, as the modern form of the biscuit had not yet been created. It is likely Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI were served exquisite almond and sugar biscuits, perhaps flavoured with rosewater, by members of the Dallyou family who had been the official royal pâtissiers since 1682, under the reign of Louis XIV. The house of Dallyou still exists in Paris today for all your gastronomic requirements.
The Parisian macaron
In the late 19th century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the beginnings of the retail industry, the salon de thé or tearoom became popular in Paris. Women were not permitted to enter into cafés, so the the salon de thé was a place they could meet their friends or call in after shopping for a pot of tea and a fabulous pastry.
Ladurée is a name which is now synonymous with the macaron. One of the first tearooms in Paris, they opened their doors in 1862 where they served delicious pâtisseries to the wealthy ladies. The famous company claims that it was Pierre Desfontaines, the grandson of the original baker, who “first thought of taking two macaron shells and joining them with a delicious ganache filling”. Thus claiming ownership of the modern macaron.
However, others believe it was Claude Gerbet, a pâtissier with a bakery in Paris, who had the idea of putting ganache, a subtle melange of cream and chocolate, between two macaron shells.
This modern form was called the ‘Parisian macaron’ or sometimes even the ‘Gerbet macaron’. Buttercream, jam, cream, ganache and a colourful array of fillings were soon created as the delicate biscuit became more refined and flavourful.
the modern macaron
In 1998 Pierre Hermé opened his first boutique in Paris. He began his career as a pâtissier at the age of 14, and spent several decades working at renowned pastry houses like Fauchon and Lênotre. Those years were spent experimenting with taste and texture and creating new flavours. He has been called the “Picasso de la pâtisserie” or the “Dior des desserts” for his sublime creations, which bring different and unexpected tastes together for a mini explosion of joy in your mouth.
Whilst he is a master pâtissier, his specialty is the macaron.
To make the perfect macaron, Pierre Hermé suggests using Valencia Spanish almonds which he then grinds himself, to obtain the ideal consistency. For the batter, he recommends keeping your egg whites in the fridge for up to a week until they are ‘liquefied’, because when the egg whites lose their elasticity they will be much easier to whisk to soft peaks without the risk of turning ‘grainy’. Once the shells are baked, Hermé fills them generously with ganache or cream, because it’s above all the filling that gives the macarons their flavour. Finally, make sure the finished macarons are placed in the fridge for 24 hours before you eat them.
The next day they will have the perfect consistency of a macaron just the way I like them, a little bit crisp but soft and fondant for a moment of pure delight.Hermé, Pierre. Macarons, Grub Street, 2015.
Pierre Hermé has created a rainbow of flavours, ranging from the classic rose to the completely out there foie gras and chocolate combination. He has crafted specialities for famous clients, such as the Jasmine macaron for Jean Patou perfumes, a red chilli pepper, raspberry and dark chocolate macaron for the magazine Paris match, and a pink peppercorn flavoured macaron for a new Occitane product.
The most popular by far is the Ispahan, named after the famous garden in Iran, which lovingly brings together the flavours of rose, lychee and raspberry. Another favourite is his Infinitely Chocolate. (To make this gorgeously chocolately macaron, you will find the recipe here)
One of Hermé’s personal favourites is the Rosehip and Chestnut macaron.
A memory in a macaron! My father Georges, a baker and pastry chef in Colmar, used to make a traditional specialty of Alsace called La Torche aux Marrons (Chestnut Torches) that consisted of meringue, chantilly cream and chestnut cream. In Paris, the same cake is called Le Mont Blanc. My personal touch is to add rosehip compote for a delicate note of freshness that enlivens the chestnut flavour.Hermé, Pierre. Macarons, Grub Street, 2015
Pierre Hermé declared March 20 to be International Macaron Day. And no wonder, as the macaron continues to be so popular around the world.
Why is the macaron so popular?
The simple answer is that they are so delicious!
If you want to have a go at making your own macarons, Baking with Gen, who is based in France, has made a great video with easy steps to follow. There’s also lots of other delicious French goodies to make on her YouTube channel.
Have you been to Paris and tried the macarons of Ladurée or Pierre Hermé? Tell me how delicious they were in the comments below.
Unless stated otherwise, all photos are the property of Madame Mélissande.