Macarons are such simple preparations, their origins are fairly easy to triangulate. Their principal ingredient is sugar, which means they date no further back than the Colonial period, the time when cane sugar was flowing in earnest from the West Indies. That supposition is bolstered by the fact that they are meringues, which means they were probably invented in the 18th Century, a period known here at joepastry.com as The Century of Foams, the time when everyone who was anyone in Europe was eating trendy egg foam-based foods like mousse and sponge cake. Further, their defining ingredient is almond, which means they’re from southern Europe, areas where the almond — a plant native to the Middle East — was either imported by invading Muslims (Spain) or brought in via trade (Italy). Their name is the giveaway there: macaron, a word that’s strikingly similar to the Italian maccherone, singular of the word we English-speakers know as “macaroni.”
There are a number of stories about the origin of macarons, all of them likely apocryphal. However they all trace their invention to Italy, where indeed macarons still exist in the form of amaretti, small almond cookies made from — you guessed it — almonds, sugar and egg whites. But amaretti, it’s important to note here, aren’t meringues. That technical twist was added almost certainly by the French.
Exactly when the macaron became a meringue is a mystery. What is known for certain is that simple, thin disks of almond-flavored meringue (then called “macarons”) were common in France in the first few decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the early 1930’s that the macaron was transformed into the Parisian pastry shop staple that it is today. That’s when an enterprising young baker by the name of Pierre Desfontaines, an employee of the legendary Ladurée bake shop and tea salon, thought to join two macarons together into a sandwich with a ganache filling in between. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Here it’s important to note that not everybody in France considers the Ladurée macaron to be the perfect iteration of this classic snack. Plenty of folks still prefer the plain disks, and consider the filled, double-decker Parisian versions to be foppish, citified nonsense. To each their own, as they say. I’ll eat them either way.