Marshmallows: Stuck in Science

Marshmallows are so yummy. We look at their jet-puffed perfectness and float away on visions of marshmallow topped yams, hot chocolate, and moon pies. But do we ever think of making them ourselves? We make cookies with our kids, cakes, even candy, but we don’t really think of making our own marshmallows. So I decided to do some digging. There are a LOT of recipes and directions for marshmallows on the internet. I picked out what I liked best about a couple of different recipes and set to work with my kids. We were pleasantly surprised to discover an amazing world of science in the process of making marshmallows as we went along.

I first got the idea in my head to make marshmallows when a friend of  mine reported that her “cookie a day” update was for graham cracker cookies with a from-scratch marshmallow filling. How fabulous! Marshmallows from scratch? I went straight home and pulled up marthastewart.com and pulled up the marshmallow recipe.  Then I Googled and compared Martha’s to a recipe on Cooks.com and then to a recipe blogged by Smitten Kitchen. Ultimately I found Martha’s recipe to be the most friendly to the lay baker, and was pleased with the ingredients she listed, minus the vanilla bean. Smitten Kitchen’s recipe called for egg whites and as we have an egg allergy in our house we try to avoid using eggs in too pure a form.

Here is my recipe as it ultimately was used:

3/4 ounce gelatin

1/2 cup cold water plus an additional 1/4 cup water

2 cups granulated sugar

2/3 cup light corn syrup (which I used simply because I had some on hand, you can make them without as well)

pinch of salt

teaspoon of vanilla

vegetable oil (for greasing)

mixer

mixing bowl

non-stick saucepan

Oiling the pan is an excellent job for little hands. They have a great time scrabbling around and being silly with the vegetable oil. But double check to be sure that they covered the entire surface! Even in their zeal they can miss spots and you don’t want your marshmallow to stick  to anything! Its a bond that almost can’t be broken.

Once your pan is oiled lightly, lightly coat the oiled pan with powdered sugar (like flouring a bread pan). Another job kids will love to take charge of! I gave one of them a quarter cup measuring scoop, they scooped up the sugar and dumped it in the pan. Then the other one got to do the shaking. By the way, don’t wear black to make marshmallows. White powder and white threads of sticky goo show up in the darnedest places!

Next, let the kids take turns tearing open the gelatin packs and pouring them into the mixing bowl. This is a great time to start making observations about your materials. Gelatin is a gritty powder, until you get to the next step and pour the half cup of cold water over the pile of gelatin. Let them swirl the bowl to make the solution and set aside.

To your saucepan ad the granulated sugar, corn syrup, and 1/4 cup water. We added the sugar first then observed the consistency and texture of the sugar versus the corn syrup, and of course a taste test was called for! It was further interesting to see that the corn syrup did not absorb readily into the sugar but coated it instead.

Once your ingredients have been added to the saucepan its time to heat it. Bring the mixture to a boil and let it boil hard for one minute. While the sugar mixture is heating, visit the mixing bowl of gelatin and water. The kids will be shocked to discover its become a funny, spongy lump! Let them push on it and feel it and discuss.

After the sugar mixture has boiled for one minute pour it into the mixing bowl and commence mixing. This will take between ten and twelve minutes. Do not be afraid if using a hand mixer! This is a fun process and the minutes fly by. You can let it cool for a few minutes before mixing, but I jumped right in using a potholder on my left hand to hold the metal bowl. It cooled while I mixed and I let the kids help hold the mixer after a couple of minutes. The substance quickly starts to change from molten sugar into a joyful, puffy whiteness. Most of the directions I read said to add the salt and vanilla towards the end of mixing, but I was afraid I’d forget and added them right off the bat. Our marshmallows were wonderful so I don’t think it will make much difference.

Once your mixture has thickened, set the mixer aside and pull out the oil again. Oil a spatula (and here I went ahead and oiled my hands as well) and use the spatula to scrape the stuff into the already oiled and sugared 9×9 inch pan. You can leave the top of the mixture gloppy if you want, that kind of home-made texture is fun, but you could also use the oiled spatula to smooth the top of the marshmallow mix in the pan. Next oil a piece of saran wrap and cover the marshmallows and set aside for two hours. I needed to get on with dinner, so I actually put mine in the fridge overnight (otherwise we get ants) and that worked just fine for us.

Clean up was a blast. I gave each kid something to lick then sent them sticky and sugar crazed out to play on the slip’n’slide to get clean. All marshmallow residue wipes off utensils easily with warm, soapy water.

When your marshmallows have set, take an oiled knife, I used an eight inch chefs knife, to separate the marshmallow from the sides of the pan. (You have to oil everything or it will stick like crazy. If you have non-stick spray that may be safer to use on the knife than applying oil by hand.) Next oil your cutting surface. I used a plastic cutting board. Although you oiled and sugared the pan the mallow mixture may still cling. Have no fear. Oil your hand lightly and pull the fluff out and lie it on the cutting surface. Now, sprinkle the top of your marshmallow with powdered sugar. This will reduce stickage the way you use flour when kneading bread. Then either wash the hand you’ll be holding the knife in or use a washcloth for gripping the handle, and start to slice through the marshmallow. Here I got smart. If you press firmly down on the knife you can pull the marshmallow up and away from it. It will come away in a clean tear. Immediately powder sugar all sides of the mallow strip. Continue slicing and dicing until you have a bunch of square marshmallows. I suggest cutting a few smaller marshmallows for the little ones to try. These things pack quite a punch and are not for the faint of heart! Toss the cubed marshmallows into a bowl with powdered sugar and toss to coat. And voila. There ya have it folks, homemade marshmallows.

Enjoy!

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