If you promise to bake macarons for a bake sale and show up with chewy mounds of shredded coconut, you’re sure to draw some surprised reactions. Except from all the other people who also routinely mix up macarons and macaroons: They’ll accept your offering without question or comment.
The two words—and even the two types of cookies themselves—are so similar that it’s no wonder people are constantly confusing them. So here’s everything you need to know about how to say them, what they are, and where they came from.
The Pronunciation: Macaron vs. Macaroon
English speakers typically pronounce macaron as “mack-uh-RAHN,” where the last syllable rhymes with the word on. Macaroon is pretty much exactly how it looks: “mack-uh-ROON,” where the last syllable rhymes with soon.
The Cookies: Macaron vs. Macaroon
You can tell a macaron from a macaroon just by looking at it. As Food Network explains, macarons are sandwich cookies comprising two perfectly round, smooth-topped wafers that encase some sort of filling, which could be anything from buttercream frosting to jam. Their color typically matches their flavor: Strawberry macarons are pink, pistachio ones are green, and so on. Macaroons, meanwhile, are craggy, lightly browned clumps of shredded coconut sometimes dipped in chocolate.
And while macarons and macaroons are both meringue-based cookies made by combining whipped egg whites with sugar, a distinct ingredient of macarons is ground blanched almonds. For macaroons, it’s the aforementioned coconut.
To help you keep the two terms straight, try to remember that macaron has one o sandwiched between the r and n, just like a macaron has one layer of filling sandwiched between two cookies. Macaroon and coconut both have two o’s.
How One Cookie Became Two
Macarons and macaroons might be two separate confections now, but they didn’t start out that way. In a 2011 piece for Slate, linguist Dan Jurafsky traced their winding history all the way back to 9th-century Sicily, where Arab soldiers introduced “a rich repertoire of nut-based sweets.” Over the next several centuries, these recipes evolved alongside those of other sweet and savory dough-based dishes in Sicily—namely, pasta ones. This helps explain why macaron is just one letter off from macaroni: They come from the same word, maccherone, from the earlier maccarruni, used to describe gnocchi-like and/or paste-based foods.
The version that landed in France at least as early as the 16th century was a sweet typically made from almond paste and egg whites. There, it was known as a macaron, but by the following century English speakers had started adding an extra o. As Jurafsky points out, it was common at the time to Anglicize the French suffix -on as -oon, which is also how we got words like balloon and cartoon.
Macaroons didn’t become their own kind of cookie until the late 19th century, when Americans started importing coconuts from India and dreaming up desserts to put them in. Jewish cookbooks in particular helped popularize coconut macaroons, especially for Passover: The flourless treat is considered unleavened, so observers can still eat it. Not every American macaroon recipe from this era actually replaced the almond with coconut, but those that did caught on in a big way—so big, in fact, that the word macaroon now generally refers to the coconut version of the cookie.
The idea to slap some filling between two traditional macarons back in France is often attributed to Paris-based pastry chef Pierre Desfontaines circa 1930, though it’s possible that another local baker, Claude Gerbet, came up with it earlier. Whatever the case, Desfontaines at least deserves credit for giving the dessert a larger platform: He was related to the founder of Ladurée, a Parisian patisserie and tea shop that still to this day serves up some of the most sought-after macarons in the world.