Macarons gained fame in 1792 when two Carmelite nuns seeking asylum in Nancy during the French Revolution baked and sold macarons in order to support themselves, thus becoming known as "the macaronsisters." The macarons they made were a simple combination of ground almonds, egg whites, and sugar.
Is a macaron a cookie?
Macaroons and macarons both start off with a base of egg whites and sugar. Some recipes vary, but this base is typically whipped into a stiff meringue - just as if you were making meringue cookies. For coconut macaroons, shredded coconut is folded into the meringue at this point.
According to Dominique Michelle, (Historian of food and kitchen), the earliest records for the base of the macaron cookie recipe dates back to the Renaissance. She finds its origins in Arabic countries, such as Syria (which still is today one of the top 10 exporters of almonds), because of the "Age of Exploration and Discovery", which is the time when Europeans explored the world.
The almond from Syria is exported towards Europe because of Europeans who were forced to embark to the sea after the Fall of Constantinople. Almonds and almond paste finally settle in the Italian kitchens.
The word "macaron" comes from the Italian word "macaroni" or "maccherone". According to "Les Origines de la Langue Francaise", it is defined as "a pasta dish with cheese'". Indeed, the word macaron was used on an egg-based pasta dish, but also as the well known cookie which was prepared with a similar recipe but adding almonds. These macarons were more similar to a marzipan though than a cookie. The name came about because almond paste was the main ingredient in this ancient macarons.
This almond paste was introduced initially to Italy "near the year 1500" (Museum of macaron, Monmorillon). It remains as a dry cookie which was consumed more as a food product than a dessert.
It came as a food paste, without color or fragrance, through Catherine de Medicis, the future wife of the Duke of Orleans, Henri. She grew up in Italy, and learned of this macaron paste through her father.
The well-known French writer Francois Rabelais was one of the first published writers to mention the macaron as a "petite patisserie ronde aux amandes", meaning the "small and round almond pastry" (Museum of macaron, Monmorillon).
First during the 1660's, produced in Montmorillon, macarons were baked for special occasions, fairs, and holy celebrations. In Saint Jean de Luz, macarons appeared with a pastry chef named Adam to be offered at the wedding of Louis XIV and Marie Therese of Spain in 1660.
Thereafter in France, variations of macarons were born. Reims, Nancy, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Châteaulin, Boulay, Montmorillon and Amiens went on to develop their own recipes in their own way and made this small almond cookie their gourmet specialty.
When Louis XIV chosen to live in the Castle of Versailles in 1682, macarons were served to the King and it was the tradition until Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The officers of mouth named Dalloyau, ancestors of those who will establish in 1802 the house of gastronomy of the same name, were served macarons to the King and it was the tradition until Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette.
First, a macaron was just single almond cookie, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. In the 1830s, macaron shelves were assembled two by two, topped with jam, spices or liquors.
The brightly colored macarons we so often see today didn't look like that at all in the past. In the 1890's, Pierre Desfontaines, second cousin to Louis Ernest Laduree, began sandwiching the two cookies around butter crème, jam, compote or ganache.
According to the city of Nancy, the macaron was crafted by religious communities, and the 1792 decree abolishing religious congregations allowed Benedictine Sisters Marguerite Gaillot and Marie-Elisabeth Morlot to sell their macarons. They were on the brink of absolute loss but this permission to make macarons saved them. Later on, the macaron of Boulay's recipe was created in 1854.
A few years later, the colorful cookies became prominent as La Maison Ladurée began cranking out a variety of flavors and colors.
Daniel Boulud open his first restaurant "Daniel" in New York City. Along with him a the head of the pastry department was Francois Payard. He was eager to showcase macarons in many of his creations. At this point, macarons were almost unknown to Americans for they were used very little by a few other French pastry chefs. Francois went through an array of flavors and styles while working with Daniel. Dinners would rave about them and often ask if they could buy them to go.
Francois Payard open his own restaurant (Payard) in the Upper East Side in NYC. Payard restaurant and bistro featured a boutique section where for the first time in America customers were able to purchase macarons to go in beautiful gift boxes of multiple sizes and on many different flavors. Extensive research shows that at that time, there was no other shop in the United States that offered macarons in boxes. Some French restaurants would use them as ornaments for their desserts or as petit fours.
With the permission of Relais Desserts International and La Maison du Macaron by Pierre Hermé, Francois establish "Macaron Day NYC" in New York City. On this day, in conjunction with Macaron Day in Paris, participating macaron bakeries offer a free macaron to all for the opportunity to discover and taste the French cookie.