In the world famous Norwegian play A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen has Nora, the protagonist, eat macaroons from the very first scene: Nora has just got back home from her Christmas shopping, and stealthily eats some macaroons — with this very small yet important action, the audience immediately understands that the macaroons hide more relevance than that they actually show. Our attention is drawn to these small Christmas sweets, which appear at the beginning of the play, uncovering important aspects of Nora’s personality, and then they disappear — and yet it is precisely the flavour of those macaroons which we can taste throughout A Doll’s House: the intense flavour of a person’s search for, and finally discovery of, their identity.
When I first read the play in school, years ago, and consequently saw it performed, I did not give much thought about what these “macaroons” might have been: for a long time I probably thought they should be macarons – the French, colourful meringue-based sandwich biscuits. Recently, I found myself re-reading this play in preparation for some teaching, and in a conversation with Amy (which lay the foundation for the creation of this blog!), we could not help wondering, what kind of macaroons does Nora actually eat in A Doll’s House? In the English-speaking world, there seem to be at least two types of macaroons: almond macaroons, and coconut macaroons. Even in the original text, Ibsen says makroner, namely the generic term for ‘macaroons’ in Norwegian, and so Ibsen interestingly avoids using the specific terms kokosmakroner (coconut macaroons), or mandelmakroner (almond macaroons). Nowadays, kokosmakroner (coconut macaroons) are a typical Norwegian Christmas sweet, and so, since A Doll’s House is set a few days before Christmas, it would not be entirely wrong to suppose that Nora should be eating coconut macaroons, after all: if so, what does this tell us about the characterization of Nora, and the play’s setting? Coconuts, obviously, are not native to Norway, and how common would they have been even in Oslo, in 1879? The French decadent poet, Charles Baudelaire, about 20 years earlier, spoke of ‘Les cocotiers absents de la superbe Afrique’ (‘Le Cygne’, ‘The Swan’, II, l. 43): the absent coconut trees of splendid Africa, which Baudelaire’s beautiful ‘négresse’ (not such a politically correct term these days!) seeks out in Paris, missing in her heart her home land, and its familiar scenery. In the poem by Baudelaire, the coconut trees have always carried, to my mind, a sensual element, both in the sound of the French word itself, and in the fact that the African woman of the poem could have missed anything else from her home land: animals (camels? elephants?), or any other tree (papyrus?), and the choice of coconuts, more than anything else, does revive the image of their luxurious leaves in one’s mind, as well as the unmistakable combination of its sweet and yet thirst-quenching flavour with its chewy flesh in one’s mouth.
According to the Cambridge World History of Food (2000), coconut first became known in Europe as early as 1500, and even if nowadays it is very easy to purchase coconuts and coconut derivates in Europe, both in its fresh and desiccated version, and coconut milk and water are becoming increasingly popular, it is still something we associate with hot countries, and the Tropics: the association of Norway with coconuts is not one spontaneously springing to mind. Yet, desiccated coconut was first produced in the early 1880s, when it started being manufactured. If the play was written in 1879, though, then Nora cannot be eating macaroons made with coconut, after all – preparing them with freshly grated coconut would have been (if at all possible) rather expensive. Almonds, on the contrary, had been cultivated in Europe for centuries by then, are mentioned in the Old Testament, and almond flour appears in many European recipes from the Middle Ages. In our indecision, we decided to make both recipes, hoping that at least one of the two would be the one in Ibsen’s mind (and mouth) when writing A Doll’s House..
Almond macaroons (makes about 15):
125g ground almonds
175g caster sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour
2 medium free-range egg whites
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
flaked almonds to decorate
- Mix the ground almonds with the sugar and the cornflour in a bowl.
- Whisk the egg whites with the vanilla extract, in another bowl, until frothy.
- Add the whites to the dry ingredients, and stir together with a wooden spoon.
- Spoon the mixture onto the baking tray (don’t forget to line it with some edible rice paper, according to the original recipe, or we used Teflon, a non-stick coating, which worked fabulously! Extensive experiments have demonstrated it is better not to use silicone sheet, or baking parchment) to form roughly 15 discs, no wider than 5cm across, as they tend to spread while baking. Place an almond flake in the centre of each disc.
- Heat the over to 160°C and bake the macaroons for 20 minutes, or until they become golden.
Coconut macaroons (makes about 12):
400g desiccated coconut
1 egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
300ml coconut milk
100g dark chocolate
- Whisk the egg white with the vanilla and salt until frothy.
- Add the desiccated coconut.
- Add the coconut milk and mix with a wooden spoon.
- Leave to stand for half an hour. In the meantime, heat the oven to 180°C.
- Stir the mixture again and then wet your fingers with cold water and make small pyramids with the coconut dough and lie them onto the baking sheet, lined with baking paper.
- Bake for 30 minutes until the peaks are golden brown. Leave the macaroons to cool and dip the bases in melted chocolate.
- Leave to set on some non-stick baking paper.