Photo by the writer
Photo by the writer

The amaretti or macaroon — not to be confused with its more famous cousin, macaron — can be found in various cuisines and bakeries around the world; perhaps due to its simple but rich ingredients or because it has been around for more than a thousand years. Food historians trace the origins of this biscuit, made from almond paste, to the Umayyad empire established in Spain, Italy and Portugal.

The macaroons as we know them now, first became popular in Sicily in the 7th century and probably came from biscuit recipes the Arabs brought with them. It was in the wake of the Umayyad conquest of Sicily in 827 that the Arab biscuit, made from honey and ground-up nuts, probably pistachios, became popular and was called maccheroni by the Italians.

A popular story is that Catherine de’ Medici, who hailed from a prominent Italian family, introduced the macaroon to the French when she married Henry II, the king of France. Food historians, however, dispute this version pointing to its Arab origins and argue that it most likely spread to the country organically. Regardless, macaroons were popular in Medici’s adopted country in the 16th century and were dubbed the macaron by the French; a literal translation of maccheroni.

In the 1830s, two nuns belonging to the Ladies of the Blessed Sacrament in Nancy, France, Marguerite Gaillot and Marie-Elisabeth Morlot, began making macaroon sandwiches. The two began selling macaroons to support themselves after congregations were banned in 1792. But it was the biscuit sandwiches that brought the two sisters the most success: Gaillot and Morlot went all in and experimented with many different fillings, such as jellies, creams, ganaches and marmalade.

These gluten-free biscuits make a great addition for an afternoon tea or an indulgent snack

Almost 231 years later, macaroons made with their original recipe can still be eaten at the Maison des Soeurs Macarons in Nancy; Morlot passed on the recipe to her niece and the business stayed in the family for three generations before the secret recipe was passed on to the new owners. Even today, the recipe has been kept a secret: only the pâtissiere knows and makes the macaroons when no one is around.

In the 1900s, Pierre Desfontaines, while working for the bakery Ladurée, began making colourful versions of the macaroon sandwich, similar to the macaron we know today. While still made from similar ingredients — like the macaroon, the dough is a mixture of meringue (whipped egg whites) sugar and almond paste — the macaron is far more complicated.

In the wake of World War II, the coconut macaroon gained in popularity across the Atlantic. While the coconut version (which replaces the almond paste with shredded coconut) has been around at least since the 1700s, coconut was a rare, ‘exotic’ ingredient at the time. As mass-produced shredded coconut became widely available, however, Americans began making coconut macaroons with much enthusiasm and they are particularly popular with the Jewish community during Passover.

Other variations of the macaroon can be found around the world, from the crescent-shaped, chocolate-dipped Mandelhörnchen to the South Indian Thoothukudi, made from cashews and egg-white. Of course, in Syria, one can find Louzieh (from the Arabic ‘louz’ which means almonds), which have been around since the Ottoman empire and are probably the closest to the original macaroons. Who knew one little biscuit could encapsulate so much history?

Almond Macaroons

These chewy, almond biscuits make for a great addition to your afternoon tea or a sweet-but-not-too-sweet snack. The best part? They’re gluten-free! Feel free to experiment and replace the almond with other nuts such as cashews, walnuts or pistachios.

Ingredients

225g ground almonds
120g caster sugar
2 egg whites
20 blanched almonds, optional

Method

Mix the ground almonds and sugar in a bowl. In a separate bowl, crack the eggs and separate the egg whites from the yolks.

Whisk the egg white till foamy and add to the almond-sugar mixture. Stir till the resulting mixture is stiff and holds shape. Wet your hands slightly then scoop a heaped teaspoon of the mixture out. Roll into a ball and then flatten into a four-centimetre-thick disc. Repeat till all the mixture is finished. Line a cookie baking sheet with baking or parchment paper. Place the biscuits at least three centimetres apart. Sprinkle each biscuit with chopped, crushed almonds or whole almonds if you’d like.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool. Serve with hot tea. Store in an airtight container to retain freshness.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 3rd, 2023

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