Macarons and macaroons are entirely different, the main ingredient for one being almond meal, and, for the other, shredded coconut.
Despite the similarity in their names and the difference of only an ‘o’, macarons and macaroons are two entirely different sweet treats. A macaron is made of ganache sandwiched between two discs of almond-meal-based confections, whereas a macaroon is a cookie made with shredded coconut that’s often drizzled with chocolate. The origins of both words are unclear but some etymologists have attempted to demystify them.
The English word ‘macaroon’ comes from the French ‘macaron’, which in turn is a translation of the Italian word ‘maccarone’ (the word macaroni comes from the same root word). The original ‘maccarone’ was a dome-shaped, almond meringue cookie, which is the same as amaretti in Italian. It was first made by French monks in Renaissance Venice, meant to resemble monks’ navels. In his informative article about the etymology of macarons, macaroons and macaroni, Stanford linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky writes: “The modern word ‘macaroni/macaroon’ (‘maccarruni’ in its original Sicilian form, ‘maccarone’ in standard Italian) first appears in writing in 1279, and is quickly used for both meanings. Alas, we just don't know where it comes from. Arabic is likely; Italian food scholar Anna Martellotti suggests that it comes from the pistachio marzipan ‘muqarrada’ mentioned above and Clifford Wright suggests a different Arabic etymology from a Tunisian word.”
It is believed that the first almond-meringue cookies originated in southern Italy in the eighth century, when almonds were brought over by the Arabs. Almond macaroons became popular in Italian-Jewish kitchens, since they were unleavened cookies and could be eaten for Passover (since leavened bread cannot be eaten during Passover). They reached France around the 16th century, introduced by travelling nuns. Shredded coconut became widely available in the US in the 19th century, and bakers discovered that they could use coconut instead of almonds to make a sturdier cookie. This became the macaroon. The Parisian macaron, on the other hand, was created in the 20th century, and soon became iconic. The first mainstream recipe for macarons was published by François Pierre La Varenne, celebrity chef and influential cookbook author.
Parisian macarons are made with almond meal, egg whites, powdered sugar and vanilla extract. The process of making them is far more delicate than the one used for macaroons, which are made by whipping egg whites until they resemble meringue and then adding shredded coconut.
The two share some history and etymology but are ultimately very different in appearance, taste and even their market positioning. Today, macarons are synonymous with high-end patisseries like Ladurée (which is said to have sold the first macarons with flavoured filling) and the humble macaroon with corner coffee shops. Macarons take greater skill to prepare and so the price tag on them is higher than the one on macaroons. The former are reserved for fancy tea parties and festive occasions, while the latter may be eaten with a coffee on the go. After all, one was the fragile product of refined European techniques and the other an American innovation meant to guarantee a longer shelf life.