Few foods represent Passover as definitively as matzah, gefilte fish … and those dense and chewy coconut macaroons. Most foods at the seder have symbolic ties to the story of Passover, or at least to a traditional Eastern European or Sephardic recipe.
But not so for coconut macaroons.
So how did these tropical, coconut-based treats make it to the Passover grocery store shelf?
With some recipe sleuthing, linguistic investigation and history lessons, we might just get to the bottom of this Passover mystery.
Let’s start with the basics: What is a macaroon? Whether they’re French macaron sandwiches, Italian amaretti cookies or kosher-for-Passover, chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons, they’re made with a base of egg whites and sugar, which gets mixed with almond paste, almonds, pistachios or shredded coconut. However, until coconut became available to European and American bakers in the late 1800s, macaroons were nut-based.
Almond macaroons were first made by Sicilians, who learned the trade from Arab troops from Tunisia who captured Sicily in 827. By the 13th century, Sicily was not only a famous center of pasta, but also of almond-paste and rosewater sweets such as marzipan (marzapane) and macaroons.
Italian macaroons caught on, especially in the Italian Jewish community, which loved being able to have such a delicious flourless treat during Passover. To this day, Sephardic Jews from Syria and Egypt make their Passover macaroons without coconut, using ground pistachios, almonds and cashews.
However, around the time when Eastern European Jews were immigrating to the United States, the macaroon scene shifted toward coconut.
The addition of coconut hinges on a discovery by Franklin Baker, a Philadelphia flour miller. Baker saw in coconut a promising new baking ingredient, and he was the first to discover that shipping shredded coconut was much more affordable and shelf-stable than shipping whole coconuts.
As Baker predicted, pastry chefs and home cooks fell in love with shredded coconut. At some point, someone discovered that replacing almond paste with shredded coconut created macaroons that didn’t spoil nearly as quickly, and were more sturdy and shippable than traditional almond macaroons.
Coconut macaroons were immediately swept up into marketing campaigns launched by kosher companies in the late 1800s.
As writer and cookbook author Leah Koenig notes, kosher-for-Passover chocolates, matzah ball mixes and coconut macaroons were produced on a large scale and marketed to Jewish families during the holidays. American Jews suddenly found it easier than ever to observe the holidays with ready-made and shelf-stable foods that were kosher for Passover; those are the same Streit’s and Manischewitz tins and boxes that we recognize today.
The macaroon saga continues today, with endless variations on the classics.
In fact, the coconut macaroon might be just as popular these days as its French pastel-sandwich counterparts; Brooklyn cafes are stocked year-round with coconut macaroons with hints of matcha, sea salt caramel and chai.
From the Arab conquest to Sicily to the Passover shelf at your local grocery store, coconut macaroons are dense with history and flavor.
Classic Chocolate Chip Macaroons
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 egg white
11/2 tsp. vanilla
Scant 1/4 tsp. orange extract
1/8 tsp. salt
3 1/2 cups shredded unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Stir together the condensed milk, egg white, vanilla, orange extract and salt in a medium bowl until well combined. Fold in the coconut, followed by the chocolate chips. Drop tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between each cookie.
Bake until cookies are lightly brown, 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool, then peel cookies from parchment. Store in an airtight container.