If you have read my blog before you will know how this bake came about, but to summarise I was asked to bake a cake for my niece’s First Holy Communion, with a specific request for a Macaron Piece-Montee. It didn’t quite work out that way as you can read here, but it made an appearance in the end as a stand alone extra piece for the celebration party.
Macarons have a fearsome reputation. I suspect they garner more internet food blog content than any other baking item and I understand why. I conquered these little delights a few years ago but only after many failed attempts drove me to an evening class held by Edd Kimber (first winner of the Bake Off) to save another mishap with egg white and almonds.
The real issue with Macarons is that there are 6 stages to their production and with every one you can make an error which frankly can’t be rescued. The other thing with them is that they go against against every grain of your basic baking training especially when it comes to the perfect meringue you have to make and then thoroughly destroy.
Because I have had these difficulties, I firmly believe an inventive and devious mind must have devised these little jewels. This led me to doing a bit of research and it turns out they have been around for a very long time with a deep heritage, so this post will be all about that. the bake itself will come later.
Almond biscuits made from ground almond, egg white and sugar have been around a very long time. Most sources attribute them to the Arabs bringing them from Syria to Sicily in the 8th century. This diversified over time to lead to macaroni (yes the pasta that is so nice with cheese but at one time was also sweet) and a sweet paste that then drifted north to the monasteries Venice. Catherine de Medici is credited with bringing them to France in the 16th Century as the bride of the future Henry II. Catherine is supposedly responsible for bringing many food inventions to France and I suspect it was more likely she had an excellent gaggle of chefs in tow when she tied the knot, then her own personal culinary skills. The confection was most likely more like a biscuit than the shell we know today, and whilst they were tantalising referred to by Rabelais in his “Fourth Book” there is unfortunately no recipe from Catherine’s time.
During the 1660’s, macarons were produced in Montmorillon 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. Both of these are still produced as you can see from the pictures below.
There are then a series of other local legends claiming the onward development of macarons with different versions of of almond paste biscuits. They all seem to be connected with various convents and monasteries getting round various religious bans on meat in order to feed themselves (a whole new version of “let them eat brioche” I wonder?), and making a bob or two.
The next drive to their popularity seems to have been the dissolution of the monasteries after the French revolution (a mere 250 years after Henry VII did it in Britain) which drove these rule busting monks and nuns to set up businesses to keep them in funds (and possibly avoid a quick guillotining in the Place de Concorde). The most famous of these are Benedictine Sisters Marguerite Gaillot and Marie-Elisabeth Morlot, nuns from Les Dames du Saint Sacrement in Nancy known as Les Souers Macarons (the Macaron Sisters). As you can see this is very much an almond biscuit than the Macaron we know. The biscuit is also very much alive and kicking as a form of Macaron in France.
1854 saw the appearance of another similar type of biscuit, the Macaron de Boulay, just North West of Nancy. The recipe for all of these has the basic ingredients of ground almonds, egg white and powdered sugar. For the Boulay you make a sugar syrup and then pour it over the combined almonds and egg white, spooned onto baking parchment in small dollops, rested for 15 minutes and then baked for 15 minutes.
The version we bakers all obsess over is the so-called Macarons de Paris invented by that most famous of Patisseries, Ladurée in the 1930’s by Pierres Desfontaines, the grandson (or 2nd cousin depending on which website you read) of the founder of Ladurée. He smoothed off the shell by finely sifting the almonds and created the airy moist texture by creating a meringue out of half of the egg white. Most importantly he took 2 of them and sandwiched them around ganache. It is this little delight that has taken over the world.
Laduree itself has become so famous because of that very modern phenomenon, a good dose of investment capital by the Holder family (who alos own the Paul bakery chain), who took over Laduree in 1993 and turned it first nto a french national brand before taking it global in 2005 with shops now all over the world. So there you have it – from an Arab settler treat to expensive chic treating 100 years.
Now if you fancy paying over £2 a macaron do pop on to their website or down to one of their shops, or alternatively you can learn how to make them yourself for about 20p each by watching out for my next post.