I don’t know about you, but I was raised on marshmallows. Popping them into my mouth whole, sipping hot chocolate with the half-melted gooeyness sticking to my upper lip. To this day s’mores ingredients (prepared in a microwave) are
a the staple food in my kitchen cupboards. And you can’t forget roasting marshmallows over a campfire: the best part of camping. One of those little things you get to know about someone is how they toast their marshmallows. Are they precise, and carefully rotate the stick to get a perfect golden brown? Are they impatient, and stick it into the center of the flame until it catches fire? Are they the types that like the burnt marshmallows or consider them ruined? (Myself, I toast to a golden brown, then strip off the first layer and repeat a couple times.) And then there’s the inevitable dropping of the toasted marshmallow where it lays, collecting soot and twigs, until somebody steps on it.
If you’re from the United States, chances are you’ve devoured a few marshmallows in your lifetime; the US is the biggest consumer of marshmallows worldwide and buy 90 million pounds of it annually (mostly during October and December, surprisingly).
But okay, suppose you haven’t heard of a marshmallow before. What is it? Well, it’s a candy. A confection, to be precise. It consists of beaten egg whites, softened gelatin, gum arabic, “flavorings”, and either corn syrup or sugar (where is any candy without its sugar?). It is whipped until it gets to a spongy consistency, then is extruded in tubes and cut into cylinders, and finally rolled in a mix of confectioner’s sugar and fine cornstarch.
Nowadays marshmallow can be found in plenty of products, including Rocky Road ice-cream, Marshmallow Peeps, and Rice Krispies Squares. Although marshmallows in their familiar soft-but-firm cylinder shape are fairly recent (the extrusion process was patented by Alex Doumak in 1948), they have existed in different forms as far back as 2000 BCE.
These 2000 BCE marshmallows were found in Ancient Eqypt. The candy was then mostly honey. It was thickened and flavoured with the sap of the root of an Althaea officinalis plant, aka a Marsh Mallow, logically named so because the plant grew in marshes (and you thought marshmallow was just a funny word). They then mixed the honey and Marsh Mallow root sap with nuts and ate it as candy. Well, actually, your average Egyptian wouldn’t dream of eating it. Marsh Mallow candy was reserved for gods and royalty.
France was the next country to stumble upon marshmallows. The candy-store owners would often spend long amounts of time whipping the Marsh Mallow root sap by hand. The mixture would then go into a mold. Candy store owners couldn’t keep up with the demand for the sticky-sweet treat. In the late 1800s, the process was made easier using a system of modified cornstarch molds, as well as by switching from Marsh Mallow root sap to cheaper and more reliable gelatin.
Marshmallows were not introduced to the US until the early 1900s, after the new manufacturing system was put in place.
While marshmallows were still made with Marsh Mallow, nineteenth century doctors would prescribe marshmallows as a cough suppressant. The Marsh Mallow root sap would be whipped into a meringue that used to soothe children’s sore throats. I wish I had to take medicine like that when I was a kid. Unfortunately, marshmallows are no good for that now, as the active ingredient was the Marsh Mallow root sap.
The replacement of gelatin (made from animal skin, tendons, gristle, etc) for Marsh Mallow root sap unfortunately makes marshmallows not vegan- or vegetarian-friendly. It is possible to make marshmallows the traditional way and buy powdered Marsh Mallow root, but it’s expensive and difficult to find. There are also gelatin alternatives. And even better, there are a few gelatin-free marshmallows that can be bought (like the kind used in Ben and Jerry's ice cream). These ones use carrageenan and agar as gelling agents, but I suspect these, too, are difficult to locate. If you're a less strict vegetarian, there are marshmallows with fish gelatin. You can also find kosher marshmallows if you keep your eyes peeled.
Okay, so by now I know you’re thinking “Why, marshmallows are amazing! I must get my hands on some right away! But what will I do with them once I procure them?” E2 to the rescue! There are plenty of marshmallow that can be found right here on your favourite website, and I’ve even gone to the trouble of cataloging some of them here.
But Danneeness, I hear you say, I don’t know how to cook! Or I’ve already baked marshmallows into a vast variety of things, what else can I do with them? Plenty! For examply, you could build a marshmallow balrog. Give peep jousting a try. Start your own peep cellar! Test if your friends are 2 marshmallow people. Learn how to gut a marshmallow (Why? Because you never know when you might need such a skill.)
And one more thing to do to enjoy marshmallows: incorporate the word into your vocabulary. It’s slang for a “timid, cowardly or ineffective person”, due to marshmallows’ yielding nature. But I don’t think it has to be used as an insult. “Oh, don’t worry about Bob, guys. He may be eight feet tall, but he’s really a big marshmallow.” And that’s the word.
For non-E2 recipes featuring marshmallows click here.