When I was a kid, one of the mysteries of life was how marshmallows were made.
It probably didn’t help that the brand we always seemed to have in our cupboard was Jet-Puffed ®. I imagined all sorts of strange contraptions shooting white, sugary Nerf balls into bags. Marshmallows just fell into this strange food category for me. They weren’t a cookie, a cake or a candy, and their texture was something altogether strange compared to just about everything else I’d eaten up until that point. Even their size was weird. I mean, are you supposed to eat them whole or take a bite out of one like an apple? It forced me into this food-eating etiquette thing that I just wasn’t comfortable with.
Marshmallows were just these sugary sponges–the foam rubber of Candy Land. I had this love-hate relationship with them up until S’mores came into my life.
Still, the burning question in my youth wasn’t where babies came from. I had that one pretty much figured out. What I couldn’t figure out was where marshmallows come from.
Actually, I guess I didn’t really care enough to find out, and no one I knew bothered to ask either. The Internet had yet to be invented, so there was no Wikipedia to check out. I kind of forgot all about it until years later when I attended the Culinary Institute of America.
The Marshmallow Epiphany
Actually, what happened wasn’t exactly an epiphany, at least not the textbook version. There was no great revelation, and the heavens didn’t open. There wasn’t even that imaginary light bulb going on just over my head.
It kind of happened by accident, and the pastry chef that revealed this truth of the universe to me didn’t even know he’d connected those last two dots of missing information in my empty head.
I was in the pastry shop making a Swiss Meringue for a pie topping, and all he said to me was, “Oh, and if you add gelatin to this and then pour it into a cornstarch-dusted pan about 1” thick, once it sets, you just punch out 1” disks with a cookie cutter to make marshmallows.”
All this time, and I come to find out it’s nothing more than meringue + gelatin.
“Of course,” I said.
After that epiphany, the rest of my education was somewhat less eventful.
Sometimes, you overthink things. Sometimes, things are a lot simpler than you had imagined. Marshmallows became my life lesson.
Now, I’m not expecting that you’ll make your own marshmallows because it’s easier or cheaper. I’m not saying they’ll necessarily be better than anything you can buy at the store, even Nino’s.
But, maybe, just maybe, you’ll want to make them because someday you can say you did. Perhaps you have a young child, and it wouldn’t be fair for him or her to grow up not knowing the answer to one of life’s real mysteries.
In either case, here is my recipe for marshmallows. Of course, since you’ll likely be making them in the privacy of your own home, there’s no one around to tell you what size to cut them or what flavor to make them. Heck, you can even brag about how you always KNEW how they were made as you sit around the campfire.
Your graham crackers won’t rat you out.
Real, Old Fashioned Marshmallows: (Makes about 75 regular-sized marshmallows)
2 envelopes Unflavored, Granulated Gelatin
1/2 cup Cold Water
2 Cups Granulated Sugar
4 Egg Whites (1 cup’s worth)
2 tsp Vanilla Extract, Pure
For Coating & Dusting (approximate amounts needed)
1 Cup Cornstarch
1 Cup Powdered Sugar
1. In a small glass or microwave-safe bowl or cup, sprinkle the gelatin over 1/2 cup of cold water to dissolve and soften.
2. In the top half of a double boiler or in a mixing bowl over a simmering pot of water, mix together the egg whites and granulated sugar.
3. Gently stir the mixture while not directly touching the simmering water until the sugar completely dissolves into the egg whites. Be careful NOT to let the sides of the bowl get so hot that the egg whites cook. When the mixture is ready, it will feel very warm, almost hot, and syrupy with no feel of the sandy, granulated sugar. What you’re making is the base for a Swiss Meringue.
4. When the sugar has completely dissolved, remove it from the heat, and while it’s still warm, whip on high speed in an electric mixture until VERY stiff. It’s almost impossible to over-whip it.
5. While the meringue is whipping, heat the gelatin and water mixture in a microwave oven on the defrost setting until the mixture is fully dissolved and clear. Avoid allowing it to come to a simmer or it could foam up. Once fully dissolved, remove it from the microwave oven and set aside a moment.
6. Once the meringue is very stiff, fold in both the gelatin/water solution and the vanilla extract.
7. Mix together the cornstarch and powdered sugar, and dust a baking sheet evenly and completely with a generous layer of that mixture. (Using a sifter really helps.) Make sure there are absolutely no bare spots.
8. Turn the mixture out onto the dusted sheet and spread with a spatula into a rectangle shape about 1” thick.
9. Allow to dry for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, uncovered but in a protected area.
10. Dust the top of the marshmallows with some of the marshmallow mixture. Cut out with a round cookie cutter, or alternately, use a pizza cutter or scissors (dusted as well with the cornstarch mixture) to cut the marshmallows into any sizes or shapes you like. Then toss the marshmallows in more of the cornstarch/powdered sugar mixture.
11. Shake the marshmallows vigorously in a wire strainer to remove any excess.
12. Store your marshmallows in an airtight container.
*As a side note, you can flavor and color your marshmallows with cocoa powder, instant espresso powder and other extracts besides vanilla. You could even add shredded, toasted coconut!
Most importantly, have fun. They may be one of life’s true mysteries, but at the end of the day, they’re still just marshmallows.