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I've never felt an emptiness in my life for homemade marshmallows. If I'd known you could make them, I wouldn't have seen the point.
Marshmallows, to me, were Jet-Puffeds. They were dense and flavourless: mini memory-foam pillows you purchased in the cellulite aisle. Marshmallows were campfire fuel – for burning, not eating. But that's before I tasted homemade ones swirled with butter and rum.
I blame what follows on a book called Marshmallow Madness! by Shauna Sever. The book promises "Dozens of Puffalicious recipes" on its pastel-coloured front. It has recipes for marshmallows with sea salt and caramel, and boozy ones with tequila and freshly squeezed lime. The book showed me a world in which people eat homemade marshmallows flavoured with real vanilla pods and honeyed apricots. I suddenly wanted to be one of those people. All my life, I'd been living a marshmallow lie.
Long before they came in plastic packages, marshmallows were made with juice from the roots of Althaea officinalis, or marsh mallow, a weedy African shrub. Only the French would try beating a weedy African shrub's gummy root juice with egg whites and sugar into what became known in the 1800s as pâté de guimauve. By the 1940s, the Jet-Puffeds of the world had replaced the egg whites and root juice with gelatin, which is made by rendering pig hides and cattle hooves; they also designed custom extruders to squeeze off tens of thousands of marshmallows per hour.
But forget all about that. Homemade marshmallows are as light as vapour and taste like whatever you put in them. Besides, most people don't realize that non-extruder-owners can make them at home. The effort-to-payoff ratio is off the charts.
The process is simple. First, you dump light corn syrup, water and gelatin into the bowl of a stand mixer (please tell me you own a stand mixer), then set it to low and walk over to the stove.
There, you whisk sugar and corn syrup with water and a bit of salt, then boil for two or three minutes until the mixture reaches 240 F.
This last bit is where marshmallow making lost me for a second. The precision of candy making has never been my thing. But Marshmallow Madness! assured me that I could do it. (See "The candy-thermometer trick that will change your life" below.)
Once your boiling sugar-water-salt mix is hot enough, you pour it into your stand mixer and crank the speed. The sugar and gelatin trap air to form millions of lily-white bubbles within the first five minutes; after 10, the mixture triples in volume and starts climbing the whisk. This is when your kitchen starts smelling incredible.
Now for flavouring: If you want to keep things simple, the scrapings from a vanilla bean will do. After adding them, tip the mixture into a prepared cake pan or pipe it from a pastry bag (I didn't bother piping it – marshmallow batter is some incredibly adhesive goo) and cure for a few hours before cutting and dusting the edges with an icing sugar-cornstarch mix. That's how I did my first batch, anyway. Two hours later, I had made three more kinds.
If the vanilla marshmallows were revelatory (and they were), the ones I made with puréed strawberries were out-of-control good (other fruit purées or concentrates work, too). They were super-light and wildly jiggly – light puffy cubes of summer-sweet strawberries in goes-down-way-too-easily little bites.
The salted caramels, meanwhile, combine the basic vanilla recipe with a quick stovetop caramel and Maldon salt. They took me 35 minutes instead of plain vanilla's 30.
They'd be worth it if they took five times as long.
But the buttered rums are the ones that still kill me. You add a jigger of your best stuff, then fold in some butter. The flavour takes a few seconds to register, especially if you grew up a packaged-marshmallows kid. They're demonstrably marshmallow, but they're fuller, darker, just mildly boozy and also buttery-creamy at the top of your tongue. You could toast them on a campfire, but that would be sacrilege.
I plan to set out a plate of them at my next dinner party. I'll say something pathetic-sounding, like, "Yeah, so guys, I made some homemade strawberry and caramel and sea salt and buttered rum marshmallows this morning."
But my guests won't register half that much. If they're anything like I was, they'll be amazed to see marshmallows that didn't come out of a bag.
THE CANDY-THERMOMETER TRICK THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
I have never made good candy. My caramel apples were always too soft and sticky, and my maple taffy was a lifelong gloopy mess. It turns out my candy thermometers were all off by 10 F or more. Here's the trick: Boil some water with your candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pot and the tip suspended near but not on the bottom. After a few minutes of rapid boiling, check the gauge and note how many degrees above or below 212 you are. (That's the temperature at which water boils.) On the underside of the thermometer's dial, there's a little nut for calibrating. Turn it with pliers to compensate for your temperature-readout difference. (If your thermometer's nutless, mark the difference with a Sharpie on the dial.) Clip the thermometer back onto the pot now. Adjust until your reading is bang-on.