CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I like it when I can surprise people with my pastimes of cooking and baking. When I present friends or acquaintances with something like home-cured bacon, they are usually incredulous: "You MADE that?"
Most recently I had that response when I made marshmallows. Yes, you can make marshmallows at home, and what's more, you can create a multitude of flavors to fit the season or your mood. The texture is also much lighter and fluffier than the ones found in the store.
Marshmallows are no more difficult than any kind of candy, which means they do offer a bit of a challenge. There is a hot-sugar syrup that can burn you, and while you could make marshmallows with a hand mixer, a stand mixer makes it a lot easier because they have to be beaten for at least 10 minutes.
The ingredients, however, are easy to obtain and inexpensive, and most of the time involved is in waiting: for the sugar syrup to reach the right temperature, for the gelatin to bloom, for the mixing to be complete, and the hardest part - for the marshmallows to cure, which takes several hours.
Originally marshmallows got their consistency from the root of the marshmallow plant, but now we use gelatin, which is a lot easier to obtain. You have to use unflavored gelatin, not Jell-o, because the sugars and other ingredients in Jell-o make it unsuitable for this purpose. In addition to the gelatin, which must be softened or "bloomed" in cool liquid before being used, sugar syrup, granulated sugar and flavorings or fruit purees are the only other ingredients.
The recipes that follow give the gelatin measurements in tablespoons. I've found that each little packet in a package of gelatin contains about 3/4 of a tablespoon. So if the recipe calls for 4 tablespoons of gelatin, you'll need about five packets.
Having a candy thermometer is preferred but not necessary, as you can use the old-fashioned method of determining the temperature of the sugar syrup: drop some of the syrup into a glass of cold water and see how it reacts.
If it forms a ball that flattens without any pressure, it's at soft ball stage (235-240 degrees); if the ball keeps its shape but you can squish it easily with your fingers, it's at firm ball stage (245-250 degrees); and if the ball keeps it shape until you exert a lot of pressure, it's at hard ball stage (255-265 degrees). There are other stages beyond these, but for marshmallow purposes the various ball stages are sufficient.
Eileen Talanian, in her book "Marshmallows: Homemade Gourmet Treats" (Gibbs Smith, 2008), provides recipes for many different flavors of marshmallows, for marshmallow fluff and for even how to make homemade Peeps!
I've made vanilla, strawberry and pumpkin marshmallows from this book, and I've also tried a few recipes from the internet. (There is a good one at www.egullet.org.) The recipes below are from Talanian's book.
Be forewarned: when she says to use an extra-large pan for the strawberry marshmallows, do it. The mixture bubbles up like crazy and will overflow even a 4-quart saucepan. (Ask me how I know.) If you don't have much experience in making candy, I suggest starting with the basic vanilla and branching out to other flavors, but if you have any candy making experience you could try the others right away.
Not only are homemade marshmallows tasty additions to hot chocolate or spiced cider, they make great fondue dippers, excellent s'mores (how about s'mores made with cinnamon grahams, pumpkin spice marshmallows and dark chocolate?), and they also make great gifts. Package some with gourmet hot chocolate mix and stick in a mug for a great teacher's gift or stocking stuffer. Or dip them in melted chocolate and let cool, then package as a stand-alone gourmet treat.
For the bloom:
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons cold water
1 1/2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unflavored gelatin (about four 1/4- ounce packages)
For the base:
3/4 cup water
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (cane sugar will produce the best results)
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup cornstarch or rice flour
SPRAY the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13 x 2-inch or 11 x 15 x 1-inch pan with a pan coating such as Pam, and wipe it lightly with a paper towel, leaving only a thin film of oil.
To make the bloom:
MEASURE the cold water into a measuring cup and add the vanilla. Place the gelatin into a small bowl and pour the water and vanilla over it, stirring with a whisk or fork until there are no lumps. Set the bowl near the stove.
To make the base: