Long used as a confection and as an ingredient in other confections and desserts, macaroons probably originated somewhere in the almond-growing areas of Italy. By the middle of the 18th Century, macaroons were well established throughout western Europe. In fact, several towns and convents in France and Italy were famous for producing them.
Though Americans tend to think of macaroons as coconut cookies, most macaroons are made from almonds or from a combination of almonds and apricot kernels. (In fact, one famous Italian brand of macaroons is made entirely from apricot kernels.) The ingredients for macaroons are simple--almonds (or almond paste), sugar and egg white. But with these few ingredients it is possible to achieve a great variety of tastes and textures. I've devised the following recipes to represent ancient and modern French, Italian and Swiss macaroons.
Typical French-style macaroons are moist and slightly chewy, with a rounded, cracked surface that comes from moistening the macaroons right before they are baked. Usually made from almond paste, these are the easiest macaroons to prepare. Among the variations of French-style macaroons are gommes (pronounced go-MAY); the name derives from the fact that the glaze was originally made from gum Arabic-- gomme in French. Gommes are macaroon stars decorated with shreds of candied fruit or almonds and glazed with corn syrup as they emerge from the oven, so that they have a shiny surface after they cool.
Italian macaroons or amaretti tend to be dry and crisp, somewhat like the famous amaretti di Saronno , still made near Milan. Though these are typically made from apricot kernels, it is easy to approximate them using almond paste. Another style of amaretti is made by the nuns at the Santo Spirito Trappist convent at Agrigento in Sicily. These decidedly primitive but flavorful macaroons are made from almonds ground with sugar, with only the smallest addition of egg white. Somewhat irregularly shaped, they are moist and nutty, unlike macaroons made with fine almond paste.
Probably made originally with a mortar and pestle, these amaretti are made in a convent that has been in virtually continuous operation (with only a short break during World War II) since the 13th Century.
Swiss macaroons, called Luxemburgerli ("little Luxemburgers"), are very much like crisp almond meringues sandwiched with chocolate filling. To my taste, they are the lightest and most delicate of all macaroons. A specialty of Zurich's famed Sprungli pastry shop, Luxemburgerli are baked in many flavors, but the vanilla-chocolate combination is the most popular. Though the recipe is a secret, my experiments have resulted in a close approximation of the original Sprungli version.
The recipe uses whole blanched almonds or almond paste. Whole blanched almonds are shelled almonds with the brown skins removed. If only unblanched (sometimes called natural) almonds are available, place almonds in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and drain. Fold hot almonds into a towel and rub to loosen skins, then go over almonds one at a time to separate nutmeat from skins. Use within a few hours. For longer storage, place in a plastic food bag and store in a freezer.
Almond paste is a smooth paste made from blanched almonds, sugar and almond extract. Use only almond paste sold in cans (an eight-ounce can is the retail size). Though there are several brands sold in cellophane-wrapped cylinders, the canned almond paste has a more vivid flavor and a lower sugar (and higher almond) content.
Macaroons are elegant, satisfying cookies. Baking them yourself not only results in a beautiful confection, but also in a great increase in quality over what is usually available commercially.
1 (8-ounce) can almond paste
1 cup sugar plus extra for sprinkling
3 tablespoons egg whites (whites from about 1 1/2 large eggs)
Granulated or powdered sugar
Break almond paste into 1-inch pieces. Combine with 1 cup sugar in bowl of heavy-duty mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix on slowest speed to crumb ingredients together. Pour in egg whites in 3 or 4 additions, beating well between additions and scraping down bowl frequently.
Scrape mixture into pastry bag fitted with plain tube that has 1/2- to 3/4-inch opening. Pipe 3/4- to 1-inch macaroons on 2 baking sheets or jelly-roll pans lined with parchment paper, leaving 1 inch between macaroons.
Wet flat-weave towel (not terry cloth) or napkin and fold into 2-inch-wide strip. Hold one end of strip in each hand and lower onto macaroons, one row at time, to flatten slightly. Sprinkle macaroons with granulated sugar.
Bake at 375 degrees until well puffed and golden, about 10 minutes. Cool on rack. To remove macaroons from paper, turn paper over and moisten back. Makes about 5 dozen small macaroons.
Chocolate Macaroons: Add 3 tablespoons sifted unsweetened cocoa powder with sugar.