Twice in the past month, I have come face to face with the marshmallow.
The first instance was about three weeks ago. Rained out of what I had hoped to be a glorious weekend camping out at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, my camping mates and I decided to have a campfire dinner at home. Any excuse to drink wine, light a fire and prevent a gallon of vegetarian chili from going to waste. I was asked to bring ingredients for s’mores. I did as I was told. The marshmallows were of the Campfire brand, which seemed appropriate enough. Upon tasting them– and I do not consider myself a grand connoisseur of sticky, gooey sweets– I was disappointed. More silky than Marshmallow Peeps certainly, but not what I would call satisfying. Can a marshmallow truly be satisfying?
The second time was earlier this week. I dipped into a hot bath on Tuesday in response to the heavens dumping their dishwater all over the Bay Area. Cold rain makes me run for hot water– I find it’s an excellent antedote. Depending on my bathtime mood, my drink of choice is either a) a dry martini (because it’s all about balance) or b) a cup of hot tea. Either tend to work brilliantly at soothing the mind. Or dulling it. This particular Tuesday, I wanted neither. I craved instead hot cocoa. Hot cocoa with marshmallows. I didn’t have any marshmallows in the house, so I thought, “Why not just make some?”
Why not just make some? I didn’t know the first thing about marshmallow making, but that has never stopped me before. I admitted my ignorance as to what was even in a marshmallow except air and goo.
So I looked it up.
I was mildly fascinated by what I learned. These factory-produced confections have been with us, in one form or another, for thousands of years and we can thank or blame the Egyptians for their creation. The marshmallow (althea officinalis) grew wild in the unsurprisingly marshy wetlands of Egypt. Though I had indeed heard of the marshmallow plant, it is difficult to connect this machine-made treat to anything even approaching organic, but there you go. I had an image in my head of little kohl-eyed children playing in the marshes, picking the candies like berries and placing them in little reed baskets. There was more to it than that, as I’m sure you might have guessed. It is the mucilaginous root of the plant the Egyptians were after. Once extracted, the sap was mixed with honey to make the candy.
In the 19th century, doctors created what we might today recognize as a marshmallow for use as a medicinal candy. The sap was cooked with egg whites and sugar to make a meringue that was used to soothe children’s sore throats. Medicinal properties? Apparently, the (real) marshmallow is useful as a cough suppressant, immune system booster and wound healer. The thought of rubbing marshmallows on one’s self if something I had imagined only existed on adult websites. I learned something new.
The marshmallow as we know it has no known healing properties, since the actual eponymous ingredient has been replaced, like everything else it seems, by modified corn products. Marshmallows are now, in fact, known to kill on occasion. Every played Chubby Bunny? No? Neither have I. I would not recommend you that you play, unless I really don’t like you.
I would like to actually get my hands on some real marshmallow sap and try making them the old fashioned way. Until my Southeastern contacts locate a reliable source (the plant grows wild in the American Coastal South), I will have to satisfy my infrequent cravings with this. It’s a good and easy-to-do recipe.
I can’t wait to see if they explode in my microwave.
This recipe calls for a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. I dropped a cast iron skillet on mine, so I ended up using what was available– an 8 x 8 inch pan. Yes, there was waste involved.
about 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 1/2 envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup hot water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Oil bottom and sides of pan and dust bottom and sides with powdered sugar.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or, lacking a stand mixer, a plain old large bowl. [or, lacking and old bowl, a new one will do just as well]), sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let stand to soften. It will form a semi-solid gelatinous mass but don’t worry, that’s supposed to happen.
In a 3-quart heavy saucepan, cook granulated sugar, corn syrup, hot water and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil the mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240 degrees F (about ten minutes). Remove pan from heat and pour the syrup over gelatin mixture, stirring until the gelatin is dissolved. At this stage, I found the whole mixture to smell of an unclean cow’s ass. I suppose it was the gelatin.
In a stand mixer, beat the sugar/gelatin mixture at high speed until white, thick and tripled in volume, about 6 minutes. If using a hand-held mixer, this should take about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, using clean beaters, beat egg whites until they just hold stiff peaks. Beat whites and vanilla into sugar mixture until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan and sift 1/4 of powdered sugar evenly over the top. Place pan in refrigerator and chill, uncovered, until firm– at least three hours and up to one day.
Run a knife around edges of pan and invert onto a large cutting board. With fingers, loosen marshmallow and cut into desired shapes and sizes. Sift remaining powdered sugar into large bowl and add marshmallows in batches, tossing evenly to coat.
Will keep for one week in an airtight container.
Makes about 96 marshmallows. I didn’t get that many out of it. I like them big.