If you look at old recipes for puddings, you’ll find they often require macaroons; sometimes as the sponge to soak up the booze at the bottom of a trifle, crumbled over the top of a dessert or used as part of the base to a cheesecake. Indeed, in Jane Grigson’s English Food, macaroons are needed for several recipes. She doesn’t give a recipe herself, and seeing as one of the blog’s roles is to try to fill in all the recipes that were omitted from English Food. If it had appeared, it would have been in the Biscuits section of the Teatime chapter.
However, don’t get macaroons confused with coconut macaroons – they are a relatively modern invention, old receipts require the classic macaroon, made of stiffly whipped egg whites and ground almonds. They are quite hard to find these days. If you are lucky, you might find them in a french bakery. Indeed, they are called french macaroons in America, and are found miniature-sized and sandwiched together with some buttercream. Delicious, of course, but no good for baking with.
The traditional macaroon is part-biscuit (cookie), part-meringue, wonderfully chewy and sweet. They are quite easy to make, though the mixture does need to be piped onto a tray. I recently made some for the 300th recipe for my other blog as part of a trifle. Luckily for me they would be drowned in dessert wine and then covered with custard, so a deft piping hand was not required (as you can see in the pictures below).
Macaroons were originally invented by Italian monks and became popular in France in the 1530s when the pattisiers of King Henri II’s wife used the Italian recipe and started making them for the court. I dont’ know when they eventually made their way to Britain, but I am sure it was pretty soon after that, as French and English cuisine was very similar and they were always looking toward each other for inspiration, especially in those times. Most recipes from around that era are very difficult to pronounce either French or English as everything overlapped so much. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the idea of making tiny ones glued together with buttercream took off.
My recipe below is based on two others: one from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper, and the other from Martha Stewart’s website of all places. The older recipe includes orange flower or rose water, which was not used as a flavouring per se, but as a way to prevent the whole almonds turning into a paste when they were being ground. I like the taste, however, so I have included it in the recipe.
If you come across a recipe that requires macaroons, or you just want some to go with a cup of tea, here’s how to do it:
5 1/2 oz icing (confectioners’ sugar)
4 oz ground almonds
3 egg whites
pinch of salt
2 oz caster (fine granulated) sugar
1 teaspoon rose water or orange flower water (optional)
Begin by mixing together the icing sugar and the ground almonds. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white and salt until they form stiff peaks, i.e. if the turn the bowl upside down, everything stays within. Whisk in the caster sugar gradually so that the egg whites become glossy. Mix in the orange flower or rose water. Next, using a metal spoon, fold in the icing sugar and almonds. Take your time here as the mixture gets thick and tacky, and you don’t want to lose all the air from your whisked eggs.
Line a baking sheet with baking paper and grease it lightly. Pipe out the mixture leaving some space between each one as it will rise in the oven.
For small macaroons, use a number 4 tip, for larger use a bigger size or pipe out in a spiral shape. It’s up to you how careful you are – the classic shape is a dome.
Leave to dry for 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon size and humidity before baking at 180°C (350°F) with the oven door slightly ajar (use a wooden spoon handle!) for between 15 and 25 minutes, depending on size. You can tell when they are done when the tops go from shiny to dull. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.