By MaryAnn Miano
Gooey, sticky, squishy, and sweet – the epitomes of a summer time treat: the marshmallow! If you’ve never experienced roasting the confection over an open flame in the summertime, you certainly have been missing out on an iconic symbol of summer.
For those who have delighted in its taste, have you ever wondered where marshmallows come from? Of course, the marshmallow is a candy, but it actually was once made from the sap of marshmallow plants. The marshmallow plant is a wild herb growing in marshland (hence the name “marshmallow”) from which a sweet sap could be extracted. Around 2,000 B.C., the ancient Egyptians indulged in the fluffy treat, especially pharaohs, who were the only Egyptians who could afford eating the rare delicacy. The Egyptians used to mix the sap of the mallow plant with a honey based candy and nut recipe. During Roman times, the mallow plant’s sap was thought to cure many ills.
Candy makers in France during the 1800s wanted to find a way to speed up production. They took the sap from marshmallow plants and combined it with egg whites and sugar. The mixture was whipped by hand, taking the form of the cylindrical marshmallow we know today. A system called starch mogul, using cornstarch, was developed to increase production so more of the general public, and not just people of high status, could enjoy marshmallows.
Candy makers replaced the eggs and the sap taken from the marshmallow plant with gelatin. This change reduced the labor-intensive process of extracting sap from the mallow plant. The gelatin was combined with corn syrup, starch, sugar, gelatin, and water, giving our modern day marshmallow its fluffy texture.
The gelatin ingredient is the key to creating marshmallows quickly. It’s an essential ingredient to extend the shelf life of marshmallows by way of infusing moisture into the candy. Now the marshmallow’s spongy qualities would last longer.
Even so, this method was not as efficient to meet the needs of demanding marshmallow consumers. In 1948, Alex Doumak created an extrusion process that pressed the marshmallow substance through tubes, cut it into equal pieces, cooled it, and then packaged it. Removing the hand-making revolutionized the production, and marshmallow candy became an everyday treat for everyone. This extrusion process allows the marshmallow to be springy and fluffy.
The popularity of the marshmallow grew in the 1950s as new recipes were developed. Today, the United States is the number one consumer of this delicious candy, and in summertime, most purchases are made with the desire to roast them over an open flame (and turn them into s’mores). This month, make your own marshmallows and enjoy the superb taste of homemade vs. store-bought! Bring them to your next barbecue to roast.
RECIPE OF THE MONTH: HOMEMADE MARSHMALLOWS
Makes about 96 1-inch cubed marshmallows
About 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 ½ envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 2 ½ teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
2 cups granulated sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites or reconstituted powdered egg whites
1 tablespoon vanilla (alternately: ½ of a scraped vanilla bean, 2 teaspoons almond or mint extract, or maybe even some food coloring for tinting)
Oil bottom and sides of a 13- by 9- by 2-inch rectangular metal baking pan and dust bottom and sides with some confectioners’ sugar. In bowl of a standing electric mixer or in a large bowl sprinkle gelatin over ½ cup cold water, and let stand to soften.
In a 3-quart heavy saucepan cook granulated sugar, corn syrup, second ½ cup of cold water, and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240°F, about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is dissolved.
With standing or a handheld electric mixer, beat mixture on high speed until white, thick, and nearly tripled in volume, about six minutes if using standing mixer or about 10 minutes if using handheld mixer.
In separate medium bowl with cleaned beaters, beat egg whites (or reconstituted powdered whites) until they just hold stiff peaks. Beat whites and vanilla (or your choice of flavoring) into sugar mixture until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan. Sift ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar evenly over top. Chill marshmallow, uncovered, until firm, at least three hours, and up to one day.
Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto a large cutting board. Lifting up one corner of inverted pan, with fingers loosen marshmallow and ease onto cutting board. With a large knife, trim edges of marshmallow and cut marshmallow into roughly one-inch cubes. Sift remaining confectioners’ sugar back into your now-empty baking pan, and roll the marshmallows through it, on all six sides, before shaking off the excess and packing them away.