Marshmallows

"It isn’t just the sugary sweet taste that people cling to, it’s the sentimentality that comes with it."

Helena Nichols - Adventures in Taste and Time

I know I've done S'mores before and I probably talked about marshmallows then, so I hope I'm not repeating myself - which is something I suspect I am doing increasingly more of. Anyway when flipping through those old magazines I was suckered in by this gorgeous picture of Lavender marshmallows a recipe by chef James Viles. Not that, like Felicity Cloake, I am a huge fan of marshmallows, but then I thought it could be interesting, and besides she said:


"This is one of those things that is infinitely better made at home – the texture lighter; the flavour, well, the flavour is just about anything you want it to be, from vanilla to Sichuan peppercorn, and the process, well, it’s nothing short of magic." Felicity Cloake


Although I have to say that her finished perfect marshmallows, don't look quite as perfect as the lavender ones at the top of the page - a tiny bit crumbly? :

The major difference I now see is that she did not include egg whites in hers whilst James Viles does. And she does say:


"Egg white, though traditional, is not vital here, but does give softer, more delicate results." Felicity Cloake


I think she abandoned the egg whites because they were so delicate they sort of fell apart.


Having now read a few recipes and a few articles about the process I now see that the fundamental process today is to prepare a gelatine mixture and a sugar syrup mixture, and then whip the hot syrup into the gelatine, pour out leave to set.


"the secret lies in whipping air into a mixture of sugar syrup and gelatine – the protein molecules in the latter “collect in the bubble walls, and this reinforcement, together with the viscosity of the strip, stabilises the foam structure”, keeping the air in as the mixture cools." Felicity Cloake


The variations come with what kind of sweetener you use - although there always seems to be sugar in there somewhere - other suggestions are honey, golden syrup, corn syrup, glucose, and also whether you use gelatine, or agar for the vegetarians. And the egg white thing. Plus, of course, you can add any kind of flavour you like. Donna Hay more or less covers all bases from Basic vanilla to Caramel swirl marshmallows and Tamal Ray of the Guardian has some Lime marshmallows

They are all more or less pure sugar, so really not good for you but an occasional treat I guess is Ok.


On the treat aspect - you might remember that experiment they did on kids by offering them a marshmallow now, whilst saying that they could have two if they waited ten minutes. The children were then left in the room on their own. The results - when they revisited the children several years later was that those that hung in there for the two generally did amazingly better in life. But guess what - they have repeated this experiment and disproved it. This time, I think they took into account other things like the kind of home and background of the children, and the results did not show a clear difference. Which is good for those parents whose tiny child couldn't resist the temptation of a marshmallow now. Alas one Professor thought that people would only remember the original experiment.


“It will never die, despite being debunked, that’s the problem. Parenting books 10 or 20 years from now will still be quoting it, and not the evidence against it,” Robert Coe


And still on the treats thing. Felicity Cloake, as I said, had never been a fan, but she did mention Flumps as being a favourite thing when a child. I had never heard of them and do wonder whether they are a northern thing, although I have not been able to establish this - other than that the company that makes them - Barratts is based in Blackpool,, so I looked them up. Here are some home-made ones, but they are also sold commercially - although the commercial versions are much smaller and more tightly wound together. I guess they are basically marshmallow rolled into long strands and then wrapped together into a sort of spiral strand. On a website called Saccharine Quarantine, the author describes them thus:


"It tastes exactly how a marshmallow (or “mallow” as they annoyingly shorten it to on the packet) should, only extremely soft in texture and therefore infinitely better than regular marshmallows which seem to form an unpleasant “crust” on the outside in certain conditions."


Marshmallows are in fact very old. The Ancient Egyptians, around 2000BC were making a kind of marshmallow for sore throats - the sap of the marshmallow plant sweetened with honey.


"Ancient Egyptians were said to be the first to make and use the root of the plant to soothe coughs and sore throats, and to heal wounds. The first marshmallows were prepared by boiling pieces of root pulp with honey until thick. Once thickened, the mixture was strained, cooled, and then used as intended." Wikipedia


It's a very pretty plant - almost weedlike I believe:

It was used in a similar fashion to the Egyptians down through the centuries medicinally.


Wikipedia also describes the entire history of the marshmallow, including all the modern industrial processes. Now I have always found Wikipedia to be pretty comprehensive on such things, and indeed it is, pedantically so in fact, but then I discovered that Helen Nichols, on her blog Adventures in Taste and Time, has an even better and extremely detailed history, almost a scholarly treatise, from the Egyptians to modern America which she calls Stay puffed my friends - in three parts: Part 1- Egypt; Part 2 - France Pâte de Guimauve; Part 3 - America. I never cease to marvel at the things that people contribute to world knowledge on the internet and this is an outstanding example. It's got facsimiles of original recipes - all manner of stuff.


The second part describes how in the early 1800s what had previously been a medicine became a confectionery, called Pâte de Guimauve. She had a go at making it and the results are shown here. At this point they were still using the plant and it was an extremely laborious process. Mid 19th century - still in France they worked out how to make it without the plant using gelatine instead. Maybe they gave it the name marshmallow in a homage to its origins. Anyway since then there have been various industrial patents and processes until today when they are churned out in their millions on factory production lines - unless you want to make your own.


America, it seems to me, is where they are really big because of the campfire toasting thing and the S'mores. Yes I know we do that too, but not to the same extremes it seems to me. I think - and it is just me thinking this - that here they are more used as decoration for birthday cakes, halloween cakes and suchlike. Not generally as sweets in themselves.


Enough said. Don't eat them - it's pure sugar really.









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