“As a rule it is better and less costly to purchase marshmallows than to try to make them”
—Ida Baily Allen, Cooking Menus Service (Doubleday: Garden City, 1935)
“Marshmallow” is one of those fantastic words that sounds like its referent—round with open vowels that get sort of squashed by that middle sibilant. Saying the word almost feels like eating something fluffy and sticky. But as it turns out, that’s just a coincidence. The “marsh” in the word does actually refer to a marsh, as in that soggy place between a body of water and land that can’t seem to decide which one it would rather be a part of—a sort of alluvial purgatory. Because that’s where the flower called the “marsh mallow,” whose extract was originally used in the confection, likes to grow.
The plant itself, Althaea officinalis, apparently has all kinds of medicinal uses—it’s a diuretic and expectorant and seems to help with some digestive and skin problems. The Latin name Althaea apparently comes from the Greek root altho, which means to heal or to cure and it was also a part of traditional Chinese medicine. The young plants can be eaten raw, and the mature stem and roots can be boiled and fried, but since antiquity, the main delivery method has been candy. The ancient Egyptians boiled pieces of the mallow root with honey and used it to soothe sore throats. In the Middle East, it was sometimes used as a poultice and applied directly to wounds but also added to halva, the dense, sweet nut or seed paste.
The type of candy we associate with the name “marshmallow” today was developed in mid-19th C. France. Some sources claim the candy was designed as a sort of advanced marsh mallow extract delivery system. According to Skuse’s Complete Confectioner (via foodtimeline.org), French confectioners added the medicinal extract to beaten egg whites to give it lightness dry it out, sugar to make it palatable, and gum to bind the ingredients.
However, other sources claim that it was marsh mallow’s unique culinary properties, not its medicinal properties, that prompted the development of the candy that now bears its name. Marsh mallow contains an abnormally large amount of a thick gluey substance called mucilage. Most plants contain some mucilage, and succulents and flax seeds contain a lot of it—that’s why cactus is so gooey and flax seeds mixed with water can be used as a vegan egg substitute. According to this version of the story, French candy makers used the mucilage extracted from mallow root as a binding agent for a mixture of egg whites, corn syrup and water. A book published in Philadelphia in 1864 called The Complete Confectioner actually mentions mucilage in the instructions for how to make a syrup of marsh mallow root:
It does seem to make more sense that the candy would keep the name “marshmallow” even after actual marsh-grown mallows ceased to play a role in its production if the plant’s role was more about texture than flavor. By the end of the 19th C., gelatin and starch substitutes were developed that could stand in for the mucilage and industrial manufacturing methods made it far cheaper and more efficient to produce them in factories than by hand. Even the famous cookbook author Fannie Farmer, writing just before the turn of the century, calls for purchased, ready-made marshmallows in her “Marshmallow paste” and doesn’t include any recipes for making them yourself (again via foodtimeline.org).
Despite what Fannie Farmer and Ida Baily Allen would have you believe, there are a couple of advantages to making your own marshmallows at home. One is the freedom to flavor them however you want. Most commercial marshmallows are flavored with vanilla, although you can occasionally find gourmet versions flavored with peppermint or cinnamon (flavors seemingly chosen for their potential to enhance hot cocoa). But why limit yourself to those? I made some with almond extract to accompany jars of homemade spiced cocoa mix I gave as gifts last Christmas. The chocolate-covered eggs I made are flavored with both almond and orange extracts, which is awesome especially with the chocolate. Other tempting possibilities: rosewater, cinnamon-almond, cinnamon-orange. Of course, vanilla’s good too. The second perk is that they’re divinely soft—as different from store-bought marsh mallows as fresh Peeps are from stale ones. I know some people prefer the latter in Peep form but who likes stale un-sugared marshmallows? (If you prefer your Peeps sacrilicious, see DoriaBiddle.com’s “Stations of the Peeps, which for some reason will not show up here in image form: http://www.doriabiddle.com/Stations1.html).
They’re also really easy to make if you have a stand mixer and you’re willing to live with squares or some other really simple shape. You basically just bloom some gelatin in a mixing bowl, heat some sugar and/or corn syrup and water to 240F, add it to the gelatin, and then let the mixer run for 10 minutes or so until it’s really fluffy. The whole process takes less than 30 minutes, and you don’t even have to do anything while the mixer is running. After my successful Christmas marshmallow experiment, I thought making homemade Peeps for Easter would be no big thing, but it turns out the difficulty is not in the making of the marshmallow, but in the shaping of it.
For every Peep I produced that was even vaguely cute-in-a-homely-sort of way, I made at least three horrifying turd-beasts that seem to look at you plaintively, as if to say, “Please kill me.”
The problem is that marshmallow sets very quickly. I knew that might be a problem, so I only made 1/3 of the Alton Brown recipe I used at Christmas. But I could still only fit 1/3 of that in my pastry bag and by the time I came back for more, the mixture really wanted to become a marshmallow in the shape of a mixing bowl. Instead of my chicks getting progressively better as I learned how to make them vaguely less excremental, they got worse and worse as I struggled to push the mixture out of the pastry bag’s tip.
So, for my second batch, I turned to the undisputed queen of painfully-adorable festive sweets. Martha Stewart actually has a recipe on her website specifically called “Marshmallow for Piping” complete with pictures of perfect little marshmallow bunnies dusted with colored sugar. I used her recipe for my second batch, and it was indeed easier to work with and I made lots of little bunnies that are definitely less hideous than my turosaurish chicks. I also transferred all of the marshmallow extract to two pastry bags and a large ziplog bag I also used for piping as soon as it was done being whipped, and I think that helped prevent it from setting, but it was still getting a little tricky to work with by the end.
Martha’s recipe contains more water than AB’s, but it doesn’t include flavor extract, which as noted is one of the major perks of making marshmallows at home, and uses all sugar instead of corn syrup, which means you have to wash the sides of the pan down with water to prevent sugar crystals from messing up the whole thing. So the verdict in the throwdown, which I guess shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, is that AB wins on taste and application of science to improve the technique, and Martha wins on presentation if you want your marshmallows to look like adorable little animals.
For the last batch, which I made into vaguely egg-like shapes and then dipped in chocolate, I used a combination of both recipes. Also, I vowed never to make shaped marshmallows again. But in case you ever want to:
- 1 package unflavored gelatin
- 1/3 cup + 3 T. ice cold water
- 4 oz. sugar (approx. 1/2 cup)
- 1/3 cup light corn syrup
- a pinch of kosher salt
- 1/2 t. flavor extract
- 4-7 drops liquid food coloring, if desired
- 1/2 cup colored sugar or a mix of 1/4 cup confectioners sugar and 1/4 cup cornstarch to coat
- cooking spray
1. Put 1/3 cup cold water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Sprinkle 1 package of unflavored gelatin on top and allow to bloom.
2. Combine 3 T. cold water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in a saucepan, cover and place over medium high heat for 3-4 minutes. Uncover and cook another 7-8 minutes or until the syrup reaches 240F (soft ball stage). Remove from heat.
3. Turn the mixer on low and slowly pour the syrup into the mixture—if possible, you want to avoid hitting the whisk because that’ll send the syrup flying all over the sides of the bowl. I aim for a spot on the side of the bowl an inch or two above the gelatin.
4. Once you have added the syrup, increased the speed to high and whip 8-10 minutes or until thick and fluffy and lukewarm and holds its shape (if doubling the recipe, 10-12 minutes, if tripling 12-15 minutes). Add the extract and food coloring in the last minute of whipping.
5. Shape and cool.
- If you want squares approximately equivalent to standard large marshmallows, make 3x the recipe (or use AB’s original) and pour it into a 9×13 pan lightly coated in cooking spray and a 1:1 mixture of corn starch and powdered sugar. Smooth the top with a lightly-oiled spatula, dust with more corn starch and powdered sugar, and let sit uncovered for at least 4 hrs or overnight. When set, turn onto a cutting board and cut into 1” squares using a lightly-oiled pizza cutter or knife. Toss in more cornstarch/powdered sugar to cover sticky edges.
- For mini marshmallows, cover 2 baking sheets with a 1:1 mixture of corn starch and powdered sugar, put the marshmallow mixture in a ziptop bag or pastry bag and pipe it in thin strips onto the prepared sheets. Dust the top of the strips with more corn starch and powdered sugar. Let sit at least 4 hrs, then cut into pieces with kitchen shears. Spray the sheers with cooking spray or dust with cornstarch/powdered sugar if they begin to stick. Toss the pieces in more cornstarch/powdered sugar to coat any sticky parts.
- For Peeps, color sugar by putting 4-5 drops of liquid food coloring per cup of sugar into a jar and shaking vigorously until the color is distributed. Spread on a baking sheet and put extra in a bowl for scattering over the shaped marshmallows. Also have a bowl of water nearby—you can dip your finger in that and use it to smooth and reshape the marshmallow a bit, especially when it forms peaks in undesirable places. Transfer all of the marshmallow mixture directly into pastry or zip-top bags as soon as you’re done whipping it and, working quickly, pipe the marshmallow directly onto the sugar-covered sheet. Sprinkle with more colored sugar, and after 30 minutes or so, when they’re set, toss them in sugar to ensure they’re fully coated.
- For chicks, use a large round pastry tip or cut a 1/4”-diameter hole by snipping one corner off a ziploc bag. Make an oval, and attempt to create a tail at one end by pulling up on the bag as you release the pressure. Then make a blob on the other end, and pull it first toward the tail and then straight up and release, attempting to create a beaked head. Good luck with that.
- For bunnies, use a large ziplock bag with a 1/2”-1” diameter hole cut in one corner to make large round blobs for the bodies. Then use either a large round pastry tip or ziploc bag with 1/4”-diameter hole corner cut off to make a tail on one end, a head on the other, and ears attached to the head.
6. If desired, add chocolate eyes and/or dip in chocolate: cut up and melt chocolate in the microwave or double boiler, being careful not to scorch it. Still frequently and remove from heat as soon as it’s smooth. Allow to cool until barely lukewarm and then either dab bits on with a toothpick or dot them on with a small decorating tip. Or dip the whole things in, using two spoons to fish them out and place them on wax paper to harden. When chocolate is set, store in airtight bags for up to 1 month.