Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rebecca's Macaroons

A snack that's perfect for Passover, or just about any other occasion you can think of!

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of all things coconut, and while I can't tell you when I tried my first coconut macaroon, I can promise you I was a very, very happy camper. They're not a cookie anyone in my family makes routinely (or at all...), and I've never seen someone make them before, so their origin and how to make them was always something of a mystery to me.

That all changed when I was watching Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship, when one of the challenges was centered around revamping traditional Hanukkah cookies. One of the cookies featured were coconut macaroons, and I was totally surprised! I had no idea macaroons were Jewish.

It turns out their history is a little more complicated than that, and it's one I decided I had to share with you guys this Passover. This year, Passover began on Friday at sundown, and is going to end the evening of April 30th, so even though I'm a little bit late, we're still safely in the window for the most important holiday in the Jewish faith.

But before we get into that, and find out why macaroons are a popular Passover dessert, I'm going to provide a quick aside about why Rebecca suddenly has a twin sister.

Everyone, meet Ana Rubin! Although many badly researched articles about American Girl incorrectly say Rebecca herself is an immigrant from Russia, she and her immediate family have been living in the United States for quite a long time, and Rebecca and her siblings were all born in the US. In Meet Rebecca, or the first couple chapters of The Sound of Applause with the BeForever revamp, it's revealed that her father's brother and his family still live in Russia and are looking to immigrate to the US as quickly as possible to avoid pogroms and forced conscription into the Tsar's army. Rebecca helps earn money to buy their passage to the US, and quickly becomes close with her cousin Ana, who's the same age as her, a bit shy, and quickly teaches Rebecca about how difficult it is to come to a new country where you don't speak the language or know the customs. Because her family is less well off than Rebecca's, she also opens her cousin's eyes to injustices in factories.

In the original illustrated books, Ana is depicted as having slightly straighter and lighter hair than Rebecca, but is otherwise described as looking similar enough to her that they could be sisters. Because Rebecca has older twin sisters, she's inherited identical sets of hand me downs, which she and Ana often share. When Lea Clark was released, I really tried to talk myself out of picking her up to be my Ana, but... I caved. The same way I'll totally cave if they ever make a doll who'd be a perfect stand in for Singing Bird or Sarah Moore. Hint hint, AG, if you're reading this. I like having two dolls from the same time period to make displays and pictures a little more dynamic, and since Ana totally would have been bought and hanging out with us already if AG had ever made her as a Best Friend character, I folded, and here she is!

So, macaroons. I, like many people, had a moment of some confusion when I discovered that there are actually macaroons, and macarons, the pretty little French sandwich cookies I'd actually never heard of up until I was in college. One of my friends suggested we head down to a bakery in town that specialized in them, and always being up for trying a new baked good, I was more than happy to investigate with her.

And then the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers started, and we got stuck on campus while the whole city was on lock down. So so much for that idea.

As it turns out, these two delicious desserts might have more in common than you'd think. French macaroons are made with almond flour, and the original macaroons didn't use coconut at all. The earliest recipes for macaroons use ground almonds, and we can trace them back to around the 9th century in an Italian monastery. When the monks moved to France in 1533, they brought the recipe with them. During the French Revolution, two Benedictine nuns fled to Nancy looking for sanctuary and paid for their housing by baking these sweet treats. Over time, the recipe was picked up by Italian Jews as a favorite treat for Passover because the recipe doesn't include any flour or leavening agents in them. Evidently, they shared this enthusiasm with other Jews, and now it's become a staple of many people's Passover traditions, or just a go to cookie year round.

Eventually - and this is the part I had difficulty tracking down - someone got the brilliant idea to start adding coconut in with the ground almonds, and then someone got the even more brilliant idea of substituting the almonds for coconut entirely, thus giving birth to the dessert I'm sharing with you today. Almond macaroons are still popular across the globe, but in the US and UK, coconut macaroons are far and away the more common. If I had to guess, coconut macaroons would have become more the norm once coconut became more easily commercially available to the middle class. Considering my Downton Abbey cookbook notes that coconuts would have been a highly prized ingredient for someone living in the UK at the turn of the century, but tropical goods were a little bit easier for the American consumer to get their hands on thanks to the relatively close proximity to the tropics, I'd say it's not impossible that Rebecca and Ana could have enjoyed coconut macaroons, or at least almond macaroons with coconut in them. I'll happily eat my words if someone knows otherwise, but based on my past research, that's my educated guess on the subject.

I'd like to talk about the history of the French macaron, but considering I want to try my hand at making those and Grace is probably the better host of such a post, I think we're going to have to save that for another time. Just remember, the sandwich cookie and the mound of baked shredded coconut originated from the same cookie! I can't be alone in thinking that's pretty cool.

As it turns out, macaroons are actually super simple to make. I borrowed a recipe from my favorite Food Network personality Ina Garten, and you can access it on! Basically all you need to do is take 14 ounces of shredded coconut, 14 ounces of sweetened condensed milk and a teaspoon of vanilla, mix them together in a bowl, and add in two extra large egg whites that you've whipped with 1/4 of a teaspoon of kosher salt until they form medium-firm peaks.

These bake in the oven at 325 degrees for about twenty or thirty minutes, or until they're golden brown and hopefully not burned. I tried to cram as many cookies as possible onto my sheet and managed to get about twenty of them out of this batch.

They were kind of hard to get off the baking mat. Apparently, people often make them with rice paper or another more delicate, hopefully edible protective paper, and part of me feels like that probably would've been easier. I mangled a couple trying to peel them off my silicone baking mat, so I guess it works out that they're not exactly beautiful looking cookies to begin with.

Still, they were super easy to make, and required very little clean up. Even if they weren't super tasty, I definitely can see why this would be a holiday favorite! Talk about virtually no stress.

I was a tiny bit uncertain about how to tell that they're cooked all the way through. The recipe says once the cookies are golden brown, they're ready to go, but I was a little worried that they seemed wet even though they looked cooked on top. I popped them back in for a couple minutes just to be sure, and pulled them back out right when it looked like some of the coconut might have been a little too burned.

Macaroons tend to be a super, super sweet cookie, and these are no exception. I don't mind that in a dessert, but it's definitely something I could see other people wanting to be served alongside a strong cup of tea or coffee or something similar. Other people dunk these in chocolate, or drizzle it over the top, and I can attest that this is delicious. You're basically making your own Mounds bar!

Overall, this was a super pleasant experience. It's always exciting to find out that one of your favorite desserts - or meals, or snacks - that you usually only treat yourself to when you're out is actually super simple to make yourself. Ina's recipe is super easy, very tasty, and makes enough to feed a crowd, or to be a decent contribution to a family dinner. I would definitely make these again.

And okay, maybe these aren't wholly authentic to 1914, but it was still pretty cool to track down the history of these cookies and find out why they've become a part of many people's Passover traditions. I'm curious about how the original recipe would compare to this modern interpretation, but let's be honest: I like coconut too much to turn down cookies like this. Since these are the more common version of macaroon in the US these days, it kind of looks like I'm not alone in feeling that way.

If anyone knows when coconut started to replace the almonds in the American version of these cookies, please let me know! I'm dying to track down the connection and the internet is failing me.

Hope you're having a delicious Passover, if you celebrate!


  1. I love coconut macaroons! Lea makes a lovely Ana, too!

    1. Rebecca has been enjoying having her cousin around again. :)

  2. If you borrow the French Jewish cookbook "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous" from the library, maybe you could have the Rubins as well as Grace host the macaron blog post, sparing yourself from having to choose.

    1. Oh awesome! Thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely see if my library's got a copy.

  3. These were tasty and YES! very sweet. I only could eat one which is probably a good thing. I'm not as big a fan of coconut, but I'm glad you gave them a try and that I got to taste one.

    1. But coconut is so tasty! Glad you liked them anyway. :D