Marvelous Macaro(o)ns

Whether glamorous or homey (and you spell them with one “o” or two), these confections are naturally gluten-free and ideal for Passover – or any time a craving strikes you.

by Jayne Cohen


Macarons or macaroons?

"I look at them both as cousins with the same last name," muses Dan Cohen, founder of Danny Macaroons, makers of creamy coconut-based confections in a bunch of imaginative flavors.

He's right, of course. Although we usually reserve the term macarons for those Parisian glamor puss dainties swanning in a rainbow of gorgeous colors, the word is simply French for macaroons – any type. And there are many.

Mangalore, a cashew-based macaroon, inspires Proustian nostalgia in Indians; for many Italians, a bite of crunchy intensely almond-flavored amaretti does the same. Ashkenazi Jews make homey little gems from every kind of tree nut, as well as coconut ones that can be chewy delights or like Danny's, velvety as the inside of a Mounds bar. And Sephardim favor maronchinos, almond flour macaroons luscious with marzipan and the scent of orange flower water.

In Ibsen's A Doll's House, Nora's craving for forbidden macaroons clues us in to her passions and secret life, an indulgence that foretells rebellion against her domineering husband.

If the only macaroons you've ever sampled are of the artificial-tasting canned variety of the past, it's hard to understand how a macaroon can be all that.

But there's more: Since all are based on the same ingredients – nuts or coconut, sugar, and egg whites – even the chicest macaroons can be kosher-for-Passover. (Flourless, they are gluten-free as well.)

Perhaps a pair of shiny hazelnut macarons embracing a schmear of salted caramel and created by Ladurée, the storied Belle Époque patisserie in Paris, do not bring to mind your typical Seder dessert tray. But for Blythe Roth, who owns Tova's All Natural Bakery with her husband, Mark, it made perfect sense. "We wanted something young and fresh and beautiful to elevate Passover desserts to a new level." They also wanted a product free of preservatives and artificial ingredients that they would feel comfortable giving their daughter, Tova, for whom their New Jersey-based company is named. So they developed dyes from vegetables – their pistachio macarons are tinted pastel green with a spinach extract, not food coloring – and came up with recipes for the shells and fillings. Their macarons, OU-certified kosher for Passover, are sold retail in the New York metropolitan area and shipped nationwide.


Or you can make your own.

Sandwiched between mild-flavored, nut meringue shells sweetened with two kinds of sugar – regular and a heavy dose of confectioner's – the best macaron fillings offer contrast in taste and texture. Make yours with tangy jams, like prune mixed with chopped toasted walnuts. Or try creamy lemon curd; barely sweetened mascarpone flavored with raspberries and rosewater; ganache, chestnut purée or chocolate given a slightly bitter edge with a dusting of cardamom or espresso powder.

But while making a filling can be as easy as opening a jar, the elegant shells are notoriously tricky to get right: smooth, uncracked surfaces; light crusts giving way to melt-in-your-mouth airiness. Simple ingredients, yes, but the nuts and sugars must be weighed on a kitchen scale, not measured by volume. Then there is the requisite sifting, piping, the wait before baking. And for some macaroon aficionados, the finished product, whether homemade or purchased from a fancy bakery, is just not worth it.

Cookbook author Faye Levy finds most macarons overly sweet: "You need more sugar to get that texture," she explains. When she studied cooking at La Varenne in Paris, she remembers, "I much preferred the simple kind with a higher proportion of nuts to the fancy ones that came in all the colors."

"Macarons require a lot of baking finesse. Macaroons are so much simpler to make – very accessible, even if you're not a baker," Dan Cohen says. "And there's a lot of room for creativity."

The simplest macaroon recipes require nothing more than briefly whirling the three basic ingredients in a food processor then baking to a pale, tender cookie or a deep gold crunchier one, as you prefer. And easy, inventive macaroons are nothing new. The 1903 edition of The Settlement Cook Book gives recipes for macaroons made from a variety of nuts, including pecans, walnuts, and even peanuts, along with flavorings like cinnamon, cocoa, lemon, and jam.

While macaroons were traditionally made of almonds, Jews have been making them with coconut at least as far back as 1871, when Esther Levy included a recipe in her Jewish Cookery Book, the first Jewish cookbook published in America. And coconut takes well to additional flavors. Sara Berger's great-grandmother's recipe, Grandma Esther’s Coconut Haystacks Macaroon – an heirloom her grandma shared in Cooking for Me-N-U, a fundraiser for the Infants' Aid Society of Chicago – is a wonderful amalgam of coconut, dates and walnuts.

Coconut also inspired Cohen, whose mother challenged him to come up with a delicious macaroon when he was home from college for the family Seder. After much research and experimenting, he perfected his own version based on old-fashioned recipes combining coconut with sweetened condensed milk. His unadorned macaroon, he writes in The Macaroon Bible, "tastes like toasted marshmallow gently kissed with coconut." Add to that more than forty-five whimsical flavor varieties, from maple pecan pie to hibiscus glaze, guava, bourbon, and salted caramel (the most popular), and it's easy to credit this cult favorite with something of a macaroon renaissance.

Of course, the most popular macaroons, both coconut and almond, were always the Passover ones in the vacuum-packed cans made by a single company, Joyce Foods. No, you wouldn't recognize the name: all the major American matzoh manufacturers sold Joyce macaroons under their own labels beginning in the 1930s.

But for the past ten years, explains Alan Adler, co-owner of Streit's, the only family-owned matzoh company left in the U.S., "we have been making our own macaroons in house. They're fresher tasting and preservative-free, but that means shorter shelf-life. We don't even start making them until sometime in December."

So, macarons or macaroons? No need to choose – with our macaroon makers and their recipes, have both.

Macaroon Know-How

Freshness: Whether starting out with whole or pre-ground nuts, be sure yours are fresh. Rich in oils, nuts can deteriorate quickly, turning rancid or stale. To avoid disappointment, always taste nuts first and store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer. While coconut has a longer shelf life, consider freezing it, too, if you rarely use it.

Allergies: An allergy to tree nuts does not indicate an allergy to coconut: While there are cases of coconut allergies, they are unrelated to the tree nut kind. That's because botanically speaking, coconuts are not true nuts, but like peaches, fruits in the drupe family. Much of the confusion stems from an FDA error including coconut in its list of tree nut allergies. If you are allergic to tree nuts, check with your doctor about coconut. A new world of Passover desserts may now be open to you.

Dairy: If the recipe calls for cream and you want dairy-free macaroons, we suggest using coconut "dairy" instead of artificial processed "creamers." Coconut milk and cream will work in dulce de leche and caramel fillings – even the ubiquitous salted kind. For Danny Macaroons’ recipes, substitute canned coconut cream for the sweetened condensed milk. If your tradition requires special certification for Passover use, one brand, Natural Choice, makes both coconut milk and coconut cream, OU-certified (though not specifically for Passover), and neither contains anything but coconut extract and water (no gums). Check with your rabbi whether these products would be acceptable without special Passover certification.

Advance prep: Both macarons and macaroons are great make-ahead desserts. Well-wrapped, they are good keepers: A few days at room temperature, a week or more in the refrigerator, and one to three months frozen.

Cakes: You can also use macaroon batter to prepare very good kosher-for-Passover cakes. To make an upside-down fruit torte, I bake a topping of almond-and-coconut macaroon batter over a layer of caramelized apples. To prevent the crust from becoming soggy from the moisture of the fruit, invert the torte just before serving.

Jayne Cohen writes and lectures extensively on Jewish cuisine and culture. Her most recent book, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (John Wiley), was finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award.