by Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
Marshmallows and the great outdoors go hand in hand. Sadly, though, a fireside-charred marshmallow oozing delightfully between chocolaty graham crackers was never a mainstay of my childhood because we weren’t a camping family. But in spite of my deprivation, I was no stranger to the marshmallow; school events that demanded Rice Krispies Treats, years of holidays and gallons of hot chocolate slurped—not to mention the occasional encounter with objects-in-Jell-O—kept our family in touch with this fluffy confection.
Marshmallows first appeared on the candy scene in France in small candymakers’ shops. They were a labor-intensive candy called pâté de guimauve (paste of the mallow plant), originally made by sweetening the thick, gummy extract from the roots of the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) plant and often infused with rosewater. Mallow plants are typically found in salt marshes and on the banks of bodies of water, hence the “marsh” in their name. Plants in the mallow family, botanically named Malvaceae, contain natural gums called mucilage, pectin and asparagin, which are responsible for gelling.
In the late 19th century, marshmallows took on their modern style when French candy manufacturers added egg whites or gelatin, and stabilizers such as modified cornstarch. They were made and displayed in long ropes, and served at exclusive restaurants after dessert—snipped by the waiter into small “pillows” at the patrons’ table. Today’s store-bought marshmallow hardly resembles this version, though, and can include all sorts of undesirable ingredients, such as blue dye to make it white and artificial flavor to make it taste like… a marshmallow?
Making your own marshmallows at home isn’t too difficult; all that’s needed is mixing technology—ideally a stand mixer, but a powerful hand-held mixer will work, too—unflavored gelatin, something sweet, some sort of liquid, flavoring agents like extracts or spices, and something starchy to dust the finished product. A candy thermometer is helpful, but not required. Egg whites are an optional addition, though recipes that use them swear by their fluffiness-enhancing powers. In my opinion, the added fluffiness results in an effervescent feeling as the marshmallows melt on the tongue. Corn syrup is helpful, though also not required. Karo brand syrup found on grocery shelves does not contain high fructose corn syrup, which is the modified and more intensely sweetened version common in food processing. Corn syrup is an invert sugar and helps prevent granulated sugar from crystallizing after being melted. When using Karo, be sure to get the “light” version (referring to the color) and not the “lite” version (skip the added chemicals and go for the caloric glory). If omitting the corn syrup, it’s best to use a candy thermometer to make sure the syrup mixture reaches 245°. Beyond the basic sugar recipe, I’ve included a recipe that omits refined sugar and corn syrup just in case these become a staple at home—which might very well happen. For both versions, I recommend adding spices, such as cinnamon, raw cacao, powdered ginger, mint or citrus extract, or even a splash of whisky or bourbon to develop personalized flavors.
Rest assured, with these marshmallows I’ve now made up for all the fireside s’mores I didn’t get to eat as a kid. And I’ve learned that sea-salted rice crackers make for an outstanding gluten-free s’more. Roasting homemade marshmallows is a little different from roasting the store-bought variety, because they melt quite fast when they are very fresh. If no campfires are on the horizon, the broiler or even a candle will do for helping them reach the optimal s’more melt.