Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Almond Macaroons: A Hint of Rosewater Makes These Taste Truly Historic

Blanched Almond Macaroons

Unblanched Almond Macaroons

This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations.

Macaroons (or, macarons in French) are small, round almond biscuits that are crunchy on the outside but soft, moist, and sweet on the inside. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest printed record of macaroons is from 1611 in R. Cotgrave's Dict. of French & Eng. Tongues. This work defines macarons as "little fritter-like Bunnes, or thick Losenges, compounded of Sugar, Almonds, Rosewater, and Muske." However, the biscuits may go back even further than 1611 to Renaissance Italy. Indeed, the name "macaroon" may derive from the Italian word for paste "macarone". Other sources place the earliest macaroon recipe to a monastery in Cormery, France dating back as far as 791 AD.

Whether the macaroon (macaron) is of French origin may be debatable, anyone who has been to France can see how popular they are there to this day. Macaroons in every color of the rainbow and sandwiched around luscious and decadent flavored fillings adorn French pastry shops. Here is a photo of the beautiful majesty of these baked jewels from the shop window at La Grande Épicerie in the deli department of Le Bon Marché, Paris:

As beautiful as these culinary gems may be, most of the macaroon recipes in 19th century American cookery books do not list directions to color the biscuits or sandwich them with tasty fillings. Instead, the biscuits seem to have mostly been made in their natural color in a round or oval form and served along with wine or liqueurs. 

Here are some examples of American recipes from  19th century cookery books (note the suggestion to use coconut in the first recipe, a more traditionally 20th century way to make a macaroon):

Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book by Catherine Beecher (New York: 1850 ed.)
Domestic Cookery by Elizabeth Lea (Baltimore, 1869)
La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn (New Orleans, 1885)

Another form of a macaroon is called a Ratafia Biscuit. These are very similar except they usually (though not always) contain a portion of bitter almonds, which can be fatal if eaten in large quantities. Italian Amaretti are also similar to Ratafia Biscuits as they too can be flavored with bitter almonds and/or ground apricot kernels.

Making Almond Macaroons 19th Century American Style:

Just as in Morris's recipe below, many 18th and 19th century cookbooks contain recipes for almond macaroons with the instruction to add rosewater "to prevent oiling." When grinding the almonds in a mortar, the addition of the rosewater would presumably prevent the almonds from forming an oily paste or butter. For the recipe adaptation, below, I have added rosewater for the flavor, but it is not necessary because I am using pre-ground almonds.

Note: You can use coarser, whole nut almond meal which will be speckled with dark spots, or you can use peeled, blanched ground almonds for a lighter, smoother more refined look. I like the taste and texture of the coarser meal, but the more refined blanched almond meal was probably more fashionable in the 19th century. Either way tastes good so it's your choice!

(from the manuscript of Ann Maria Morris, c. 1824)

To one pound of sweet blanched almonds, put 1 lb. sugar, a little rose-water to prevent it oiling, beat the whites of 4 eggs to a froth. Then beat them well together; drop them on a paper greased. Grate sugar over, and bake them white.

Macaroons: Modern Recipe Adaptation
Yield: About 16 1-Ounce Cookies or 32 Half-Ounce Cookies

Whites of 2 Large Eggs
1/2 Teaspoon Rosewater
1/2 Pound Ground Almonds, Blanched or Un-blanched (You can make your own or buy pre-ground meal)
1 Cup Granulated Sugar, Plus Extra for Tops of Cookies

1.  Heat oven to 325º F.

2.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

3.  Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until light and frothy. Add the rosewater to the egg whites and beat again just to mix it into the whites.

Frothy Egg Whites

4.  In a separate mixing bowl, stir together the ground almonds and sugar. 

5.  Add the almond mixture to the frothy egg whites and beat with the electric mixer until all of the ingredients are evenly mixed.

6.  Drop the batter by 1 ounce spoons onto the parchment lined cookie sheets and then shape the cookies into circles or ovals with your hands. Make sure your measuring spoon and your hands are wet or the cookie batter will stick and be very difficult to manipulate.

7. Sprinkle the tops of the cookies with granulated sugar.

8.  Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cookies are just barely starting to turn golden on the edges and crack slightly on top.

9. Remove from the oven and slide the parchment paper with the cookies off the baking sheet. Do not attempt to remove the cookies from the parchment paper until they are completely cool and firm. 

Storage: Eat fresh macaroons within 1 day; Refrigerate for up to 1 week; freeze for up to 6 months. 


  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food, 2002.
  • Larousse Gastronomique, The World's Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia. New York: 2001

Friday, December 4, 2015

Christmas Fruitcake: It's Time for Americans to Get Over Their Fear and Loathing!

Christmas Fruitcake

“There’s only one fruitcake in the 
world and it gets passed from 
one person to the next.”

While I am sure there are many American bakers who turn out delicious fruitcakes at Christmas, lots of Americans, unfortunately, have an aversion to fruitcake. This negative view of the dreaded fruitcake is not helped by the drab  commercially prepared cakes available in American supermarkets and wholesale clubs. These cakes tend to be dry, hard, and tasteless and have a poor texture. The fruits  in these cakes tend not to be doused in tasty brandy or other spirits, and they are filled with artificially colored glazed cherries and citron.

While visiting England over the 2014 Christmas festive season, I noticed beautiful Christmas fruitcakes available in almost every food shop and department store. Of course, I had to try one! English fruitcakes are nothing like most popular commercial American ones. They are rich, moist,  and laden with alcohol-drenched dried fruits; and, they are  covered in decadent almond paste (marzipan) and thick icing. Moreover, British fruitcakes tend to be beautifully decorated and packaged. Interestingly, I since have learned that it is quite common for British wedding cakes to be made in this same fashion!

After seeing so many fruitcakes being purchased by eager British holiday shoppers (and, presumably brides and grooms), I started wondering why Americans do not eagerly anticipate fruitcake during the festive season (or at any other time of the year either).

While looking in historic American cookbooks from the 19th century, I found lots of evidence that rich, delicious, and beautiful fruitcakes were indeed popular here in the States. Here is one example I found:

Jennie June’s American Cookery Book, 1870    

So, why did American fruitcake degenerate into a cake that's as heavy as a brick and as tasteless as sandpaper? There is no definitive answer to this question. However, there are two possible explanations: 1) the era of Prohibition may have curtailed the  use of spirits to flavor and cure the cakes to make them moist and delicious, and 2) commercial bakers during the days of Prohibition offered ready-made alcohol-free fruitcakes for sale and set a pattern for the next generations. I would love feedback from readers offering other possible reasons for the devolution of the American fruitcake.

A New Approach to Fruitcake
In an attempt to create a fruitcake Americans might actually want to eat, I am  taking elements from  two historic American fruitcake recipes to make a new recipe that I hope my readers will try and love. The first recipe is Martha Washington's Great Cake and the second is Black Cake. You can click on each link for more information about these cakes. The recipe below is essentially the Martha Washington  Great Cake with two major changes: 1) the addition of brandy-soaked fruit; and, 2) half of the granulated sugar has been replaced with dark brown muscovado sugar (true brown sugar). Note: most store-brand brown sugar is white sugar that has been coated with molasses; real muscovado sugar has never been refined to white sugar--its molasses occurs  naturally throughout each crystal of sugar and so has a richer flavor.

The muscovado sugar is the dark one on top. Compare its intensity to the commercially mass produced
dark and light brown sugars on the bottom. (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

To make this fruitcake, you will need to plan ahead and start your cake 2-3 weeks before you want to serve it. There are lots of steps but they are all quite easy, so all you need is good organizational skills and a calendar with notifications to remind you to tend your cake!

Now, Let's Make This Fruitcake . . .

Step 1: Begin One Day Before Baking Day
  • 1¼ pounds (20 ounces) dried fruit, such as currants, golden raisins, candied citrus peel (I do not like glazed cherries in bright green and red colors).
  • 3 Tablespoons Brandy


  1. Place the fruit in an airtight container and pour the brandy over it. Stir thoroughly and cover. 
  2. Set aside in a cool, dry place for at least 12 hours, but longer if possible.
Step 2: Baking Day

  • 4 Cups All-Purpose Flour 
  • 2½ Teaspoons Ground Mace 
  • 2½ Teaspoons Ground Nutmeg 
  • 10 Large Eggs
  • 1 Pound Salted Butter (Softened)
  • 1 Cup Granulated Sugar 
  • 1 Cup Dark Brown Muscovado Sugar 
  • ¼ Cup White Sweet Wine 
  • 1/4 Cup French Brandy (or Madeira, or Sherry)


1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and line a 10" round cake pan with removable bottom. Place the cake pan on a parchment-lined baking tin.

2.  In a medium bowl, measure out all but 1/2 cup of the flour. 

3.  Add the spices to the 3 1/2 cups of flour and whisk until well incorporated and fluffy.

4. Add the remaining 1/2 cup flour to the brandy-soaked fruit and stir to completely coat all of the fruit. (This is important--the fruit will all sink to the bottom if you do not do this!)

5. Separate egg whites from yolks & set yolks aside in a small bowl. In another bowl, beat the egg whites to the foamy or  “soft peak” stage. 

6. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugars together using an electric mixer.

7. Slowly add the beaten egg whites, one spoonful at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar. Beat just until blended. 

8. Add the egg yolks and beat to incorporate.

9.  Measure out the wine & brandy and add them to the wet ingredients.

10.  Add the flour and spice mixture to the wet ingredients.  Beat until well mixed, but do not overbeat.  

11.  Then, add the flour-coated fruit to the batter.      

12.  Put batter into pan & place in oven. Bake for about 75 minutes if using one springform pan or 50-60 minutes if using two 9" cake rounds.  Make sure a toothpick inserted is clean before removing from oven.  Since oven temperatures can vary, you must monitor cooking time carefully. 

13.  When done, remove cake from oven & cool for about 10 minutes. Then move onto Step 3 . . .

Step 3: Feed the Cake

  • 1 Baked Cake
  • Plastic Wrap
  • One Wooden Skewer
  • 2 Tablespoons Brandy Needed Each and Every Time You Feed the Cake
  • Pastry Brush
  • Cake Box or Storage Container
1. Take cake out of cake pan and place bottom-side up on several large sheets of plastic wrap.

2. Poke holes in the cake using the wooded skewer.

3. Take the brandy and pour some over the cake. Use the pastry brush to spread the brandy. Keep pouring and brushing the brandy over the entire top of the cake.

4. Completely wrap the cake with the plastic wrap and place in the cake storage box. Store in a cool, dry room for about 1 week.

5. After the first week, follow direction #3 above again to feed the cake another 2 tablespoons of brandy. Then, follow direction #4 to store it again.

6. Wait another week and feed the cake one more time.

Step 4: Assemble the Cake

  • 8 ounces Almond Paste or Marzipan (marzipan is sweeter than plain almond paste)
  • Confectioner's Sugar (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 Tablespoons Apple Jelly
  • Icing (see step 3 for options)
  • Cake Decorations

1. About 1-2 days before you plan to serve the cake (which should be after feeding the cake with spirits for three consecutive weeks), you are ready to finish it.

2. Roll out the almond paste or marzipan on a board dusted with confectioner's sugar to about 1/4 inch thickness. Cut it in strips to fit around the sides and top of the cake. Adhere the almond paste with melted apple jelly as a glue. This takes a fairly long time but is worth it as it adds a distinctive flavor.

3. Cover the cake with either homemade gum paste fondant icing, icing made from a store-bought gum paste fondant kit,  or royal icing.

4. Decorate with candy, marzipan figures, plastic toy figurines, etc. [Scroll to the top to see the finished and decorated cake.]