A Passover Treat

My Jewish grandmother didn’t serve, or eat, a lot of sweets. Nevertheless, in her home (as in many Jewish-American homes) a can of coconut macaroons always appeared during Passover to grace the table.

Macaroons fit into kosher dietary restrictions at Passover because they are leavened only with eggs and contain no flour. These restrictions help Jewish people evoke the story of Exodus.

When the Jews were finally allowed to leave Egypt, according to that story, they were in such a hurry that their bread didn’t have time to rise. Avoiding risen bread and flour during this season thus becomes a ritual of remembrance.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to make my own macaroons for Passover. I did a little research on the internet to explore the history of these cookies.

According to Slate, the origins of macaroons date back to the ninth century, when Arab troops from what is now Tunisia arrived in Sicily to establish an emirate. They brought with them a number of technologies as well as foods that were new to Europe. The latter included lemons, rice, and nut-and-fruit-based confections. These innovations quickly spread north from Sicily to Italy.

The Italians adapted the Arab sweets to create a nut-based candy or cookie that obtained additional consistency from beaten egg whites. Jews in Italy soon realized that they could enjoy these treats at Passover as there was no gluten involved in making them.

Putting coconut in macaroons was apparently an American innovation. In 1894, a miller in Philadelphia named Franklin Baker unexpectedly received a large shipment of coconuts in exchange for flour he had shipped to Cuba.

He couldn’t find a buyer for his boatload of coconuts, and he didn’t want the fruit to go bad. He invented a process for shredding and drying the coconut meat and began to market it.

I had always assumed that the brand name Baker’s Coconut signaled that the coconut was to be used for baking—but it was in fact named after its founder.

According Mira Fox in the Forward, the practice of eating coconut macaroons caught on among American Jews. They liked the idea of enjoying what they perceived as an “exotic” flavor at Passover.

Manishewitz, a company known for manufacturing kosher foods, was an innovator in introducing canned macaroons to the nation. Fox calls Manishewitz “one of the titans of the canned coconut macaroon scene.”

“When you think of American food, you often think of processed foods—Wonder Bread and McDonald’s and Fruit Loops,” she writes. “So it makes sense that the American Pesach table is dominated by a cookie that was popularized because it could be processed and sold in bulk.” Pesach is the Hebrew word for Passover.

Manishewitz sells many, many varieties of macaroons. These include such flavors as red velvet cake, chocolate mint, honey nut, pistachio orange, carrot cake, and cold-brew Earl Grey tea.

The company even manufactures a special package of coconut macaroons in a hot 1960s pink tin named after Mrs. Maisel, the heroine of the popular Amazon Prime television series about a Jewish housewife who morphs into a stand-up comic.

Courtesy of Manischewitz

This is a limited-edition product so I was unable to purchase it. (Believe me, I tried. I’m a sucker for TV tie-ins, and for anything hot pink.)

My own macaroons are adapted from several different recipes, including one in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook that uses a little flour. I eschewed the flour.

The chocolate coating on the bottom of the macaroons is optional, but I like it … because my father liked it. Like many holiday foods, these cookies are as important for the memories they evoke as for the flavors they contain.

I shared my first batch with friends and neighbors. It was such a hit that I made an additional half recipe. The second time I used white chocolate on the bottoms instead of semi-sweet chocolate. As long as the white chocolate isn’t applied too lavishly, I found, it’s even better than semi-sweet. That batch is already gone … well before the end of Passover this Saturday evening.

Coconut Macaroons

Ingredients:

1 bag (14 ounces) sweetened shredded coconut
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1 pinch salt
optional: 1-1/3 cups chopped semi-sweet chocolate (you may use chips) or white chocolate

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silicone.

In a nonstick skillet, toast the coconut over medium heat, stirring constantly, until quite a bit (but not all) of it turns brown. This will take around 5 minutes; the exact time will depend on your stove. Remove the coconut from the pan, and let it cool.

In a bowl, thoroughly combine the cooled coconut, the condensed milk, and the vanilla.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and the salt until they form soft peaks that hold their shape.

Gently fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture. Use a cookie scoop, a spoon, and/or your hands to form the dough into rough balls that are about 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Place them on the cookie sheets at least 1 inch apart.

Bake the macaroons until they turn a light golden brown (about 18 to 20 minutes). Let them cool for a couple of minutes on the cookie sheet; then remove them to a rack to finish cooling.

If you wish to add the chocolate, melt it over hot water using a double boiler. With clean hands, dip the bottoms of the cooled macaroons in the chocolate. (You may use a spoon to help.) Place the chocolate-bottomed macaroons on wax paper to cool.

Store the macaroons in an air-tight container. Makes 24 macaroons, more or less, depending on how big you make them.

Watch me make the macaroons in this video.

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