About four years ago, or one house and one baby ago to be precise, one of my dearest friends visited from overseas. Amongst the treasures she brought along there was glassine bag full of sweets in rose petal hues. Marshmallows. From Paris.
Through my childhood I liked marshmallows well enough. Out of a package, sometimes fascinatingly elastic, sometimes with a faint leathered quality to their exterior if the bag was left open too long. Parisian marshmallows were a world apart from those. They were a confection in the truest sense; soft sponges, delicately sweet and pleasantly supple. I ate them plain, as they were, plucked from their packaging, pinched gently between two fingers and nibbled, daintily.
If I were the sort to swoon, I would have.
I haven't forgotten my declaration that you all deserve a treat. True to my word, and with that memory in mind, I'm here with marshmallows. They're as close to hers as I can muster, tender in the middle and ethereally fluffy. They seem to defy nature with their suspension of bubbles held in cloud-like stasis.
Marshmallows do have an amiable mystery, since they seem much more complex to make than they actually are. While there is the matter of working with gelatin and a candy thermometer, those aspects are footnotes to the method really, only taking few minutes of consideration.
First you take the gelatin and let it soak in some water to until soft. Boil a sugar syrup on the stove until it reaches 240°F, called the "soft-ball stage" in candy making if you're into that sort of thing, and stir in the now-pliable gelatin. Pull out a stand mixer, whip up egg whites, then (carefully!) pour in the syrup. Leave the machine beat away until the batter is cool, thick and voluminous, then pour it all out into a prepared pan to set for a few hours. Once the timer dings, you turn out the pan, grab a knife, and behold! Marshmallows.
As I believe that in the lifespan of a marshmallow that the highest honour is a blistering, fiery send off, I think it is best to start at the basic. And the basic is beguiling - vanilla. These are exceptionally, pronouncedly vanilla marshmallows. There is that flowered quality of the vanilla bean I think is at its best here, propped up in a way that shows its full breadth of attributes, marvelously positioned halfway between perfume and cream soda.
They can of course, be the subject of variation. Use cold espresso to start the gelatin off, add some cocoa powder and finely-ground espresso beans to the end of beating and you have a caffeinated, speckled version. They can be spiked with peppermint or burnished with ground cinnamon, sploshed with rose water and orange flower water to create the marshmallowed imagining of Turkish Delight - tinged a gentle pink with some food colouring to achieve their felicitous blush.
I imagine round-cheeked cherubs snacking upon those.
To end, while these marshmallows come along by way of my kitchen instead of the City of Light, if you would be so kind as to imagine them in crystalline bags with an elegant black bow and labelled en français, maybe you'll get the a glimpse of effect from those years ago. Fingers crossed you'll think they're swoony too.
Fluffy Vanilla Marshmallows, two ways
The ingredients are fiddled from this recipe from Epicurious, but the method departs from theirs. In this version, the hot sugar syrup is poured directly into the egg whites as they are beaten, as is done with Italian meringue. A note on the egg whites: if you want an all-around marshmallow, good for toasting over a campfire let's say, use 2 egg whites. For a marshmallow destined for hot-cocoa greatness, one that melts evenly but slowly, use 3.
Nonstick cooking spray, for pan
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 cup water, divided
3 packages unflavoured gelatin
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2-3 egg whites, see above
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Spray the bottom and interior sides of a 9x13-inch metal baking pan with cooking spray. Sift together the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar in a small bowl, then dust an even layer of the mixture over the prepared pan, making sure to coat thoroughly. Set aside. Reserve the rest of the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar.
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 1/2 cup of the water and allow to sit until softened and all the water is absorbed.
Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Stir using a wooden spoon, over medium low heat, until the sugar has dissolved, around 3-4 minutes. Bring the mixture to the boil over medium heat and cook, without stirring, until it reaches a temperature of 240°F (115°C) on a candy thermometer, around 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and add the gelatin. Stir until dissolved.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. On medium speed, pour a thin, steady stream of the hot sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the egg whites (if poured directly onto the beaters, the insanely hot syrup might splash). Slowly increase the speed to high and beat until the batter has nearly tripled in volume and has cooled to room temperature, around 12-15 minutes. Pour in vanilla and beat for about a minute more. Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan, using an oiled offset spatula to smush into corners and smooth the top. Sift over another generous layer of the reserved cornstarch and confectioner's sugar mixture (you should still have lots left over). Let stand until set, at room temperature and uncovered, around 3 hours.
Onto a large board, sift some more of the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar. Run a thin knife around the edge of the marshmallows to release from the pan then invert onto the dusted work surface. Use an oiled knife or cutter to divide into your desired shapes. Coat these with a sifting of the last of the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar to keep them separate.
Store in an airtight container with parchment paper between layers, for up to one week.
Makes 1 9x13-inch pan.