What’s the difference between a macaron and macaroon? There is often confusion with their pronunciation or translation – either with one ‘o’ or two.
Did you know, however, there are also many old-fashioned varieties of artisanal macarons in France? So let me explain the differences between a macaroon, French macarons, and the modern Parisian gerbet macaron. Not to be confused with our Président Macron, either.
It happened again. I recently caught myself wincing at a teatime menu’s English version. This time it was in one of Paris’s most elegant and prominent tea salons in Place Vendôme. On their menu, the famously stylish Parisian “macaron” was translated as “macaroon”.
I know, it’s not one of the world’s first problems but please, get it right.
While Macarons and Macaroons perhaps sound alike, they are both totally different.
Macaron vs Macaroon Pronunciation & Translation
This confusion with an extra “o” is nothing new. It happens frequently, whether it’s on a top tearoom menu in Paris or on high-end supermarket packaging around the world. Many people pronounce the macaron a “macaroon”. Even a UK bookshop snootily turned down stocking my first book, Mad About Macarons, simply because the title read “Macarons” and not “Macaroons”.
The same mistake continues like a couple of crêpes stuck on deaf ears. I’m perhaps mad about macarons, but if you’re just as infatuated with Paris’s Ambassador of Pastry as I am, its name needs to be defended.
A Parisian macaron has smooth delicate meringue-like shells sandwiched together with chocolate ganache, jam, curd or buttercream. The macaroon is more rustic looking without the filling – in fact, nothing like it. I’m not being posh or trying to show off I can speak some French after 30 years living here. It’s just that the term, macaron is the right word to use to describe these little filled rainbow-coloured Parisian confections.
So let’s get it straight with the simplest answer: the macaron is meringue-based and the macaroon is coconut based.
However, there’s more to it than that.
Are Macarons Gluten Free?
A similarity between both Parisian macarons and macaroons is that both are gluten-free.
They’re not the same but they have mutual ingredients of egg whites and sugar. While a Parisian macaron includes ground almonds (almond flour); a macaroon is instead made primarily with coconut.
Another similarity between the two is that they both measure, on average, between 4-5cm in diameter.
Brief Macaron History
Macarons date back to the middle ages in Europe. However, we have a better idea of its history during the Renaissance – first cited by French writer Rabelais in his “Quart-Livre” in 1552 at the time of the ‘macarone‘.
The Venetian maccherone (meaning a fine paste of something crushed, a thin pastry) was made of ground almonds, egg whites and sugar – the base which continues today. It was apparently brought to France by Catherine de Medici and her chefs when she married the future King of France in 1533, Henri II.
Then almond cakes/cookies fell out of fashion: the taste of bitter almonds had the same taste as arsenic. Royalty and the nobility therefore avoided almond tasting ‘treats’. So it wasn’t until the 17th century when local variants (see below) spread around France.
The French-Italian Macaron
The maccherone was a meringue-amaretti-like biscuit but a much rougher looking type of confection, predominantly tasting of almonds. All in the spirit of research, I buzzed around Venice for a week trying to find the closest to today’s old-fashioned macaron, like we see in France. The closest in appearance were Coriandoli, tasting of almonds – although the pasticceria (bakery) had added colouring and aromas, which unfortunately hid the taste of the original almonds. The best we found were amaretti morbidi – soft amaretti almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar.
Their variants are found throughout France today – more on that below, particularly on the variety from Joyeuse, which is not too sweet. Alexandre Dumas includes an entry in his Dictionary of French Cuisine in 1873 for macarons, including one with bitter almonds and one with sweet almonds.
The Modern Parisian Macaron’s History
Fast forward much later. In France, the macaron’s super-model upgrade wasn’t made famous until the 1900s.
Its transformation first came in the 1860s when Parisian pâtissier, Claude Gerbet stuck two shells together – hence why the Parisian modern macaron is referred to as the Parisian or Gerbet macaron. Then a Luxembourg pastry chef, Camille Studer, added a buttercream filling between the two shells, calling them Luxemburgerli.
Around 1930, Ernest Ladurée’s second cousin, Pierre Desfontaines takes the credit for inventing these sandwiched macaron confections. He added colouring to be assorted with their different flavours. Then they suddenly took on Paris fashion status when Pierre Hermé made them popular, while working at Ladurée in the 1990s.
So the popular Parisian macaron today is the modern smooth and coloured macaron, sandwiched together with a ganache, jam or buttercream filling with its characteristic ruffled, frilly ‘foot’.
French Regional Macaron Varieties
However, even the macaron can be a confusing term today, as there are also many old-fashioned and artisanal French regional varieties using the same ingredients as the Parisian macaron. The proportions and baking are completely different, so the end result is a different looking confection entirely. Each more resemble the original Italian macaron introduced by Catherine de Medici and many date back to either the 17th Century or around the French Revolution.
Each region adds its own twist and, as a result, they all look so different. For example, in Picardy, the Amiens macaron speciality adds marzipan, fruits and honey. To get an idea, take a look at the macarons of Joyeuse, Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Montmorillon.
Moreover, some old-fashioned macarons include flour, so they are not all gluten free.
Macarons de Joyeuse
The Duke of Joyeuse married King Henri III’s sister-in-law in 1581 in Paris. At the lavish wedding festivities lasting two weeks, King Henri’s mother, Catherine de Medici ensured the best music and pastries – including her favourite maccherone or macarons. The Duke of Joyeuse was evidently so in love with them that he brought them back to Joyeuse and ensured they were made for the couple and the town – and the rest is history.
So, since 1581, the Macarons de Joyeuse have continued to be made by the Maison Charaix (see their website for more history) much in the same way at that joyful wedding. Their version includes hazelnuts as well as almonds.
The Basque macarons from Saint-Jean-de-Luz were originally created for King Louis XIV’s wedding there in 1660. Known as ‘Paré Gabéa‘ (meaning incomparable), they continue to be made fresh every day traditionally by hand at La Maison Adam in St Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz. Their boutique, Etxea (meaning “House” in Basque), in Saint-Jean-de-Luz has recently been redesigned to highlight the making of them – aptly at the address in Place Louis XIV.
Montmorillan and the Macaron Museum
Like the other varieties, macarons from Montmorillon are rustic but the flavour is pronounced of almonds, even when given added different flavours. A speciality of Poitou, the Rannou Métivier family have been carrying on the tradition of making their Montmorillon macarons since 1920. Learn much more at their Macaron Museum.
- Boulay speciality made since the Lazard couple’s recipe in 1854, Macarons de Boulay are presented in characteristic red box;
- Cormery shaped like a belly button, originating at the Abbey of Cormery in 1791 (according to Larousse Gastronomique, although the town believes they were invented in the 8th century);
- Nancy made famous by the Macaron Sisters (macarons des soeurs), a couple of Carmelite nuns who made the Nancy macarons popular in 1792 while taking refuge during the decree abolishing religious congregations;
- Saint-Émilion the recipe dates back to 1620 – no colouring added and continues to be made at la fabrique.
All of them guard their recipes as top secret and so to taste them, it’s worth a visit to each macaron region of France! However, many of them can also be found in Paris at La Grande Epicerie.
What is a Macaroon?
Simpler and quicker to prepare as it’s not baked like the macaron, the coconut macaroon is made primarily of coconut with egg whites and sugar. It’s also known as rocher coco or congolais in French. Sometimes the macaroon confection with shredded or flaked coconut – either star or cone-shaped – is dipped in chocolate. See my recipe for them in my book, Teatime in Paris.
It’s not clear when macaroons were created. It makes sense that coconut was only added around the 1800s when coconut was brought from the Far East.
What is a Macaroon Bar from Scotland?
What’s more, there’s even a macaroon bar, something different again. Just pronouncing macaroon makes us want to roll the “r” like we do in Scotland. It’s no coincidence that us Scots are proud of the mighty Scottish Macaroon bar.
This is particularly sweet since the fondant inside is primarily sugar with a little potato (trust the Scots to think of that one!) and coated with a thin layer of chocolate and coconut. I wonder if Catherine de Medici’s successor, Mary Queen of Scots as French queen brought it in her year-long reign as Queen of France? Who knows?
I’ve adapted the large traditional sugary macaroon bar to make these mini versions of Scottish Macaroon bar snowballs. If you want to see the more classic size, head over to Christina Conte’s macaroon bar recipe.
To puzzle us further, there’s yet another exception to the rule of almonds and coconut: there are plenty of macaroon recipes outside of France which use pie crust or pastry as a base and the macaroon reference is a mixture of coconut and/or almond toppings. For example, see this recipe for macaroon jam tarts. They are an exception to the gluten free rule – these macaroon jam tarts are not gluten free as use wheat flour – just as these traditional macarons.
Traditional, old-fashioned macarons (à l’ancien) are now becoming more popular in bakeries around Paris. When I ask what kind of regional macaron they are, I get a simple, ‘the old-fashioned traditional kind’ – when I’m expecting them to say, ‘based on Nancy macarons or Cormery’, for example. These ones contain wheat flour, so when tasting these generic old-fashioned kinds of French macarons and you’re following a strict gluten-free diet, just check with the bakery first.
Macarons vs Macaroons – Conclusion
So before the confusion spreads any further between such differences between macarons and macaroons, let’s nip it in the bud.
In all their varying forms, the macaroon refers to the coconut confection without any filling
The macaron today, unless a traditional French regional version is mentioned, refers to the Parisian or Gerbet macaron – the shiny, dainty version sandwiched with a ganache, jam or cream filling. Just don’t forget its ruffled foot, otherwise it’s not a Parisian macaron.
Now it’s over to you to spread the macaron word.
This post was first published in January 2016 but is now updated to cover more regional varieties and new images.