I have heard the word macaroon many times before but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. I knew it was a cookie. But in my mind, the macaroon was made with coconut. Then I started seeing macaroons in stores or in magazines and they didn’t look like coconut. They looked colorful. The looked like mini whoopee pies in bright, chromatic hues. But they looked crunchy too, like the texture of a meringue cookie. I was confused.
Come to find out, I’m not alone. At the root of this confusion is the fact that there exists something called a macaron which is also a cookie. The folks at ChefSteps.com set me straight: “A macaroon is a mounded cookie made with shredded coconut and often dipped in chocolate. A macaron is a French confection made up of two round, flat, almond-flour-based cookies sandwiching an emulsified filling like ganache or jam.” The article went on to explain the history of the cookies with a very interesting infographic (check out the link above), but essentially the two cookies derive from the same beginning as a treat cooked by French monks during the Renaissance. In the mid-1600s, the first recipe for macarons appears which calls for a paste made of hand-ground almond flour mixed with powdered sugar and moistened with egg whites. This is the macaron that grew to fame. In the 1900’s, chefs started to put a filling between two cookies and that’s how the modern macaron grew its current state. The macaroon was similar to the original cookie and even Martha Washington had a recipe for a similar cookie made with almond meal in one of her cookbooks. In the late 1800’s, coconuts started becoming more and more available in the United States and cooks began making their cookies with coconut rather than almond meal. That’s the cookie we have today. A macaron is French. A macaroon is Southern USA cooking.
I wasn’t far off on what I knew about these cookies. When I pictured a macaroon, I pictured coconut and that is actually the most popular version of a macaroon, so I was in the right ballpark. The other cookies (macarons) are often bright color and they have a meringue-like texture to the cookie, so I was on the right track there too. I was happy to know it’s not just me that gets confused. It seems to be a common conundrum. What confuses matters more is that macarons are sometimes spelled and pronounced differently in French depending on the region. Sometimes those cookies can be pronounced like macaroon and even spelled that way although they are actually what we know as macarons. I understand the nuances of language, but it wasn’t making this particular celebration easy, especially when I didn’t figure any of this out until the very end of my day.
I was going to be in Newport for lunch today and so I knew my day would finish up there. While I was planning my National Macaroon Day celebration I did a little search online for macaroons in Newport. Ideally I would find a bakery that sold them and my celebration would be easy peasy. I felt a macaroon (which I was envisioning as a macaron) would be a difficult recipe for the home cook, especially one without the time to bake them. In hindsight, a macaroon would have been easy to toss together. They cook fairly fast. A macaron however is as difficult as I imagined. In any case, on my Google search I found two bakeries that mentioned macaroons. One was the Mad Hatter Bakery – a Newport institution on Broadway and a spot from which I have enjoyed many a cake. The other was the French Confection which is on East Main Road in Middletown – a small little French bakery that is in an unusual spot but has great coffee, food and baked goods. It was raining out and so parking in Newport was at a premium so when I passed by the Mad Hatter, there were no spots available, so I kept on driving along and heading towards the French Confection. I even called them to see if they were open (they were) and I specifically asked if they had any macaroons (note the two O’s) and they did. I was there in minutes, and when I walked in I noticed their display case was adorned with a whole row of fresh made macaroons (although in actuality, they were macarons – are you still following this?)
They were neat little sandwich cookies of various colors and looks and they probably had about 15 different varieties. I ordered six which I felt would take care of all our celebration needs. The bright colored ones were fruit flavored and I kind of shied away from them, but the ones that were more cookie-colored looked more appealing to me. I picked up a vanilla (which had a nice cream center), a chocolate, a pistachio, a hazelnut and a cappuccino and then completed my half-dozen with a raspberry just to test the colorful kind. I got a nice hot cappuccino to go too and I was out the door within ten minutes with a box of cookies in hands. I got home around 4:30 and still had some coffee left, so I fixed a nice little plate for an afternoon snack.
These cookies were awesome. They took me by surprise as I was expecting a hollow, flavorless styrofoam tasting confection. They were anything but. The cookies were fresh and had a nice soft crunch to them with hints of that meringue texture but more robust. The cream in the middle filled out the rest of the cookie too adding rich creaminess to the sweet bite of the cookie. I was really amazed. I didn’t know they were that good and I was sad that I had always stayed away from them. Now I know better.
But they weren’t macaroons. They were macarons. I can’t blame the person on the phone at the French Confection because she probably has 100 people a day mispronounce what the cookies are (and in truth they were exactly what my vision of a macaroon should be). She just let it go. I discovered all this when I sat down to write about my enjoyable cookie experience. I was aghast. I had celebrated the wrong thing. I thought maybe I should rummage through my pantry and try to whip up a batch of coconut macaroons at the very end of the day, but that was just silly. Technically, if you bring in the French spelling and the alternate spelling, I did celebrate the macaroon. It was just not the usual kind. But it was indeed the delicious kind. I say it counts.
I still think I had a pretty interesting celebration of both cookies today. While I never tasted the delight of a fresh true macaroon, the cookie with coconut, I had a good idea of what they were all about. I think I have even had them in the past and they taste like a nice, moist coconut cookie. I also learned that Saturday is National Chocolate Macaroon Day, so I will have an opportunity to make them again in just three days, so quite by accident, I avoided a repeat. I did learn about the macaron today too and I discovered how tasty a cookie they are. I discovered the difference between the two and I think in doing so, I lived up to the essence of this quest – to learn and discover. I heartily recommend a macaron now, and particularly one from the French Confection. It was a new cookie for me and a fine discovery. I think anytime you spend your day trying to discover something delicious is time well spent. Plus, it all came under the guise of the hunt for macaroons, I just took a wrong turn. A happy mistake and an even happier celebration.
Next up: National Hazelnut Cake Day