The month of April slipped into town last week, crocuses and daffodils searching for a place in the sun. Overshadowed by gray skies and chilly temps, the landscape beyond the bakery window gives little indication as to the season. Thank goodness for expiration dates on cases of dairy stacked high in the walk-in refrigerator. The retail public also helps clarify the upcoming holidays with persistent inquiries.
“No, the macaroons are not made with flour. And no, we are not a Kosher bakery. And yes, there is dairy in the flourless chocolate cake, but no, no gluten. And yes, the flourless pecan torte has no flour but yes, it has pecans. Yes, if you have a nut allergy then no, I wouldn’t advise it.” You can bet your chocolate peanut butter egg that by the time I sit down to my Passover dinner, I will be more than ready for a glass of wine; perhaps two.
Not wishing to take sides, clearly the Easter cookies seem to get a pass. Bunny cookies cooling their freshly sugared tails never encounter an interrogation. Passover macaroons seldom escape unscathed.
A young woman stopped me yesterday as I returned a stray Sharpie marker to a cup adjacent to the telephone. “Is it too late to order macaroons for Passover?” The hairspray from her freshly layered bob cut through the air like a chef’s knife. I stifled a pertussive cough as she glanced down at her phone, then up to the chalkboard menu hanging overhead. I waited, she continued. “What are the chocolate macaroons? Are they plain with chocolate, or just chocolate? Lemon macaroons? What are those? Are they in the same box?!” She seemed horrified.
Is an assorted box of macaroons so hard to understand? No one questions the boxes of sugar drenched bunnies on the run. Folks scoop up cello wrapped baskets of assorted Easter themed cookies without a fuss. Why must the macaroon be subject to criticism and debate?
Not even a Passover Haggadah can shed light on the history of the macaroon. Trust me when I tell you that airtight canisters of dry, coconut spiked cookies did not simply appear on supermarket shelves. Like many food traditions, they evolved over time.
Macaroons (not to be confused with the French macaron) have a history that dates back to the 13th century. Long before coconut was available to European bakers, macaroons were made with egg whites, sugar and either almond paste, marzipan or nutmeats. Tunisians introduced Sicilians to the flourless cookies, enhanced with almonds. Macaroons became popular within the Italian Jewish communities, not only during Passover but year round. When Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States, recipes for cookies featuring egg whites, sugar and nuts followed.
Sephardic cookbooks feature macaroon recipes using strictly ground nuts, not coconut. The addition of coconut can loosely be credited to Philadelphia flour miller, Franklin Baker. In 1895, Baker exported a shipment of flour to Cuba and was paid in fresh coconuts. Sensing a need in the baking community for dried coconut, Baker ultimately sold his flour business in order to concentrate on coconut. His inkling proved enormously profitable. The business eventually became the Franklin Baker Company, specializing in desiccated (dried) coconut products. The introduction of dried coconut changed macaroons forever.
This bit of food history is of little interest to the macaroon-seeking patrons at my workplace. They are more concerned that lemon-filled macaroons, plain macaroons and their chocolate drizzled counterparts have plenty of elbow room. Sorry, but there’s just so much space in a 6” square window bakery box.
As for the lemon macaroon naysayers, the pairing of sweet coconut and tart lemon is as perfectly matched as dark chocolate and coconut. Which brings me to this week’s recipe, Lemon Pie with Toasty Meringue and Macaroon Crust. Filling a pie plate with an oversized macaroon and filling it with tart lemon curd can only be enhanced with a drizzle of dark chocolate. A nibble of a chocolate dipped macaroon alongside a slice of bright lemon topped with marshmallow almost redeems this week’s retail holiday. Almost.