The word macaroon is applied to a variety of light, baked confections, described as either small cakes or meringue-like cookies depending on their consistency. The original macaroon was a “small sweet cake consisting largely of ground almonds” similar to Italian amaretti. Today, other common varieties include the coconut macaroon and the French macaroon or macaron, which can have various flavourings and is typically cream-filled.
The English word macaroon and French macaron come from the Italian maccarone or maccherone. This word is itself derived from ammaccare, meaning crush or beat, used here in reference to the almond paste which is the principal ingredient.
Most recipes call for egg whites (usually whipped to stiff peaks), with ground or powdered nuts, generally almond or coconut. Almost all call for sugar. Macaroons are commonly baked on edible rice paper placed on a baking tray.
The earliest recorded macaroon recipes are for the almond meringue variety similar to amaretti, with a crisp crust and a softer interior. They were made from egg whites and almond paste. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management gives a recipe for a macaroon of this kind.
The name of the cookie comes from an Italian word meaning paste, maccarone. While origins are uncertain, some culinary historians claim that that macaroons can be traced to an Italian monastery. The monks came to France in 1533, joined by the pastry chefs of Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henri II. Later, two Benedictine nuns, Sister Marguerite and Sister Marie-Elisabeth, came to Nancy seeking asylum during the French Revolution. The two women paid for their housing by baking and selling macaroon cookies, and thus became known as the “Macaroon Sisters.” Recipes for macaroons (also spelled “mackaroon,” “maccaroon” and “mackaroom”) appear in recipe books at least as early as 1725 (Robert Smith’s Court Cookery, or the Complete English Cook).
Italian Jews later adopted the cookie because it has no flour or leavening (macaroons are leavened by egg whites) and can be enjoyed during the eight-day observation of Passover. It was introduced to other European Jews and became popular as a year-round sweet. Over time, coconut was added to the ground almonds and, in certain recipes, replaced them. Potato starch is also sometimes included in the recipe, to give the macaroons more body.