On dark winter nights, after a day of sledding and snow, I remember reveling in the heat from the crackling fireplace and anticipating the skewers of marshmallows and packs of graham crackers and chocolate that would become a sweet wintry sandwich. Marshmallows elicit other all-American memories — more s'mores on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving candied yams topped with marshmallows, and hot cocoa with marshmallows around the winter holidays.
Yet, the origins of the sticky treat are far from American. I thought I'd find that marshmallows were a candy factory's grand invention, like on an episode of Unwrapped. It turns out that the marshmallow dates back to 2000 B.C., when Egyptians mixed mallow root with honey to create hard candies as offerings for the gods and royalty. Found in swampy marshes — hence "marsh mallows" — the root was known to have a variety of medicinal qualities including laxative and anti-inflammatory effects. The mallow root even appears in the Greek physician texts of Hippocrates and Dioscorides as a cure for insect bites and toothaches.
The current iteration of the marshmallow was not created until the early 1800s, when the mallow root was whipped together with egg whites and sugar, creating the meringue-like texture of the modern marshmallow. Yet, the medicinal use of the marshmallow continued until the marsh mallow root was replaced with the more cost-effective gelatin in the early 1900s. It was then that the marshmallow became mass manufactured. This surge in marshmallow production inspired several treats we still enjoy, such as Moon Pies, marshmallow fluff and the creamy center of the Twinkie. By 1955, there were 35 marshmallow factories in the United States, and a new manufacturing process was created, using piping and slicing of the marshmallow to speed up production.
One can, however, make marshmallows at home. Homemade marshmallows have a silky, light texture uncharacteristic of the factory-churned versions. A few years ago, a contemporary marshmallow wave began in gourmet coffee and bake shops in some cities and online, offering homemade marshmallows flavored with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, often selling for more than a dollar apiece. Today's marshmallows come in savory as well as sweet versions. In New York, the American grill restaurant Saxon + Parole offers a carrot, ginger and lemon soup topped with a toasted chili marshmallow. The Girl and the Goat in Chicago uses "foie fluff" as the savory note in its rich chocolate bouchon dessert. You can order marshmallows online in nontraditional flavors such as beer, avocado and horseradish.
I decided to give homemade marshmallows a try. Collecting the ingredients, I pictured myself covered head-to-toe in powdered sugar, the mixture having spun out of control. However, my fears of a goo-covered kitchen were unwarranted. The process was easy, not terribly messy and actually fun. I experimented with colors, creating red, blue and green swirls. I purchased mini cookie cutters and cut the marshmallows into snowflake, snowman and mitten shapes. I cut others into squares and dipped them in chocolate, topping them with sprinkles, peppermint or coconut. A process I assumed would be difficult turned out to be a cinch. My excitement in making them was rivaled only by my family's enthusiasm for eating them.
Popping one after the other into my mouth, I only wish I could convince myself that some medicinal benefit still exists.
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