By Chef K. Marie Paulk
It’s here again … the countdown to the holidays. Don’t be upset with me for mentioning it – the clock is always moving forward! The end of 2016 does seem rather sudden to me and it has me a bit freaked out. I was in Costco in August and they already had their Halloween costumes on display. I know that in retail the holidays start the day the kids go back to school. So, while the stores are focusing their attention to December, I want to focus on the first official celebration of fall: Halloween. And we all know what that means! Sweets and candy for all the little goblins.
I can think of a lot of sweets I love for the holidays (candy apples, popcorn balls, any kind of chocolate), but what I have been thinking most about lately is marshmallows. I feel the marshmallow is an overlooked confection. Also, it’s an item that you could use throughout the holidays. It’s such a simple recipe, really not that difficult to make, and you can also use it to assist with making lots of other yummy treats. Some of the simplest, which I love, are those rice crispy treats you can make for your little trick or treaters. If you’re like me, you’ll be using them to make your favorite sweet potato recipe for Thanksgiving dinner. And what about putting them into your hot chocolate for those cold nights in December? I don’t know anyone that would not appreciate the gift of homemade marshmallows. I also don’t know many people that don’t love ambrosia salad, something I always look forward to eating during the holidays. Then there is the easiest dessert to make, the crowd pleaser, s’mores! Which I know brings back a lot of childhood memories.
Little did I know that that marshmallow is both the name of a plant and confection. It is a common plant in both Europe and Asia and it is related to the mallow plant, but it looks more like hollyhock. The official name for this weedy plant is “Althaea Officinalis.” It is a perennial herb, which received its name because it’s relation to mallow, and grows nears marshes throughout Europe and Asia. Marshmallows, the confectionary treat, were first made in France from the gummy root of the marshmallow plant. The leaves are edible, but the root is what is mainly used to make the substance. The plant can still be found growing along the east coast in the United States. Marshmallows are called “Pâte de guimauve” in France, which is where they originated. The juice was mixed with eggs and sugar and then beaten to a foam. They are very similar to our marshmallows, but they are sweetened with rose or vanilla.
Today, marshmallows are made by combining a viscous protein solution, usually gelatin or gum arabic, to a sugar syrup. The solution is concentrated to a caramel state (this is called the hard ball stage) and then whipped to put air bubbles into the product. You can then add coloring and/or a flavoring. If you are going to make your own I’ve read the trick is to use egg whites which will make the marshmallows lighter and softer.
Homemade marshmallows will keep for about 2 weeks in an airtight container. To make about 1 1/2 pounds you will need the following:
4 Tbsp. unflavored powered gelatin
1 1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp. light corn syrup
2 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 cup cornstarch and confectioners’ sugar, mixed in a bowl for dusting the pans and waxed paper
Reminder: You can color and/or flavor to your liking.
Prepare and set aside two 8” square pans dusted with the cornstarch/confectioner sugar mixture.
Soften the gelatin in 3/4 cup of water in a saucepan. Heat the gelatin slowly to dissolve but don’t let it fully boil, stir in the vanilla.
In a separate saucepan combine the sugar, corn syrup and the remaining 3/4 cup of water. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Set the thermometer in the pan and without stirring and let the mixture reach 250 to 260 degrees (this is the hardball stage). While the sugar is boiling, beat the egg whites with the whisk attachment on high speed until you form medium-stiff peaks.
When the sugar reaches temperature, whisk in the dissolved gelatin. With the mixer on its highest speed, slowly pour the hot syrup into the egg whites. At first the whites will get soft, but they will eventually thicken. Continue beating until it begins to hold shape, about 5 minutes.
Divide the marshmallow mixture between the two 8” square pans you prepared at the start and smooth out the mixture with a spatula. Let it sit uncovered until firm – typically 4 to 6 hours.
With a sharp knife loosen the sides of the marshmallow from the pans over a sheet of waxed paper that is dusted with more of the cornstarch mixture; flip the marshmallow onto the paper. Let it sit for an additional 2 hours.
There is not a lot written about this treat, which I think is because it is so easy to buy at your local supermarket, but it is both easy and fun to make as well. Take the time this holiday season to make it extra special with this wonderful treat and enjoy!