It's campfire season
by Laura Silber
For many centuries, as far back as ancient Egypt, the pretty flowering plant Althaea officinalis was highly prized for its antiinflammatory properties. Known in English by its common name, the marsh mallow, the plant is native to marshy areas of Europe and North Africa and is a member of the mallow family, which includes okra. While all parts of the plant were used in poultices, tinctures, and teas, the marsh mallow’s gooey root sap was prized for its additional qualities as an edible thickener. Frequently combined with a sweetener, usually honey, it was used as a medicinal lozenge or candy to address a wide range of ailments.
It was in mid-nineteenth century France that this edible sap (guimauve in French) became the key ingredient in a delicious sweet with no medicinal value whatsoever. Pâté de guimauve, a fluffy concoction of egg whites, sugar, and sap, literally translates as “marsh mallow paste” and was the precursor to what we today know as marshmallows. Confectioners would extract the sap from the root in small batches, and whip the ingredients together by hand. The resulting paste was then either dropped, rolled by hand into long coils, or individually shaped using molds. The process was labor-intensive, requiring both delicacy and expense, so while pâté de guimauve became very popular, it remained for decades a regional and special treat.
The introduction and popularization of gelatine around the turn of the century allowed confectioners to leave behind the mallow root and make marshmallow sweets on a much more cost-effective and larger scale. This also allowed production to cross the Atlantic, and marshmallows became well loved in the United States. In 1917, the first handmade batches of Marshmallow Fluff were introduced for sale locally, door to door, in Somerville, Massachusetts. In 1927, the American Girl Scout Handbook introduced the campfire recipe for the s’more, which became an instant classic. The mass-production extrusion process was introduced in 1948, which created the instantly recognizable marshmallow shape still sold in the U.S. today.
Commercial production of marshmallows in the States did away with the egg white, which gave pâté de guimauve its distinctive fluffy quality, resulting in a tighter, chewier marshmallow. Even a lot of the domestically available artisanal marshmallow makers I researched made this Americanized version, omitting the egg whites. The resulting texture is one I’m not a big fan of, and in a homemade small-batch recipe it also risks allowing the flavor of the gelatine to remain too prominent.
The recipe offered here, therefore, begins with the more traditional method of whipping egg whites and then cooking them, in motion, with the addition of 260° F boiling hot sugar syrup–the resulting pliable glossy cloud is commonly referred to as Italian Meringue and forms the base for many classic dessert recipes. Adding liquefied gelatine to the meringue gives you perfect marshmallow cream. No baking is required. The cream will remain flexible for about 20-30 minutes before the gelatine begins to set, during which time you can drop it by the spoonful onto trays, pipe it with a pastry bag into shapes, spread it gently on top of a cake layer, or drop it on top of a waiting cookie. The resulting marshmallows are delicately sweet, smooth, and fluffy, and melt just as beautifully on the tongue as they do in a steaming cappuccino or mug of hot chocolate.