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A Lifetime of Sticky Love: Grandma’s Marshmallows

Marshmallow squares. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Marshmallow squares. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Marshmallows were a staple in our house when I was growing up. Not a staple like potatoes and carrots, which showed up in one form or another on the table for most dinners, but marshmallows were always in the cupboard, waiting to float in hot chocolate or be skewered and toasted over a campfire. Other times, they got all gooey, sandwiched with chocolate between graham crackers; was there ever a better name for a treat than s’mores?

We even made our own marshmallows, from my grandmother’s recipe.  Sometimes we left them as marshmallows, cubes rolled in confectioner’s sugar, while other times we added a short crust and a dusting of sweet coconut and transformed them into marshmallow squares (still one of my favorite cookies).

We had marshmallow love, just like people have had for centuries.

Marshmallow history

Marshmallows have a surprisingly long history, dating to ancient times. They were first made from the pulp of the marsh mallow plant root, which was boiled with sugar or another sweetener like honey, then strained and cooled. The ancient Egyptians used to make this candy for their pharaohs and gods.

Mere and poor mortals in ancient Greece and Rome ate the marsh mallow plant because it was abundant and fed their hunger. Lucian, a satirist of the day, thought it should be eaten like lettuce.

Marsh mallow was also used medicinally. It helped to treat wounds, and when mixed with wine, it calmed coughs.  Marsh mallow water treated catarrhs (inflammations of mucus membranes), among other things.

Modern marshmallows

Marshmallows similar to what we know today were first made in France around 1850 in small sweet shops. Candy makers extracted the sap from the plant’s root, whipped and sweetened it. Although very popular, the resulting marshmallows took a lot of time and effort to make.

In the late 19th century, French manufacturers incorporated egg whites or gelatin and corn starch into their marshmallows (also known as pâte de guimauve). This eliminated the sap but required new ways to combine the gelatin and corn starch.

By the turn of the last century, marshmallows were sold alongside licorice whips and peppermint drops, but they became even more popular when some smart marketers suggested that marshmallows went well with other popular items such as Jell-O. Jellied salads with fruit and miniature marshmallows are still a staple at family celebrations, especially in summer.

In the 1950s, the United States had more than 30 marshmallow manufacturers. Around this time, Alex Doumak patented the extrusion process which allowed marshmallows to be cheaply and quickly produced. This process forced the marshmallow mixture through a tube; it was then cut into pieces and rolled in cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar.

Marshmallow Fluff and creme

Where would a banana split be without a scoop of Marshmallow Fluff or marshmallow creme to go along with the chocolate or strawberry sauce?

The earliest mention of marshmallow creme in an American cookbook is in Fannie Farmer’s “Boston School Cook Book” from 1896. She advises the home baker to, “Put Marshmallow Cream between the layers and on the top” of a cake for a splendid result.

The first marshmallow creme manufactured and marketed in America was Marshmallow Fluff. Although Fluff and creme are similar, Fluff is made using a more expensive batch-whipping process, while creme is made with a continuous mixing process.

Marshmallow Fluff was first made in 1917 by Archibald Query in Somerville, Mass. He turned out batches of the stuff in his kitchen and sold it door to door to housewives, but food shortages during the war caused him to stop production. When the war was over, he was no longer interested in Marshmallow Fluff, so he sold the recipe to H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower for $500.

These World War I veterans continued to sell their product door to door, and soon it became so popular it was stocked on grocers’ shelves. As their business grew more successful, Durkee and Mower advertised in Boston newspapers and on radio.  In 1930, they began sponsoring a weekly radio show called “Flufferettes.” It aired Sunday evenings before Jack Benny, and with its live music and comedy skits, the “Flufferettes” remained popular throughout the 1940s.

Today, sophisticated marshmallow flavors such as chai, champagne and dark chocolate are popular and delicious, but when I want a comforting and easy-to-make treat, I make my grandmother’s marshmallows.

They were sure sellers at her Anglican Church Women’s teas and bake sales. When she made Marshmallow Squares for these socials, her Kenmore mixer practically vibrated as it whipped gelatin, water and vanilla into bowl after bowl of fluffy delight. I sneaked spoon after spoon of the pale pink or yellow-colored marshmallow and later, she would let me roll the top and sides of the marshmallows in coconut. She saved the edges, sliced away first so it was easier to remove the squares from the pan, and set them aside. Later, when the plates of squares were wrapped, waiting to go to the church hall, she and I sat in the mud room and ate what she’d saved for us, marshmallow first and then the crust. That’s still how I eat them.

Marshmallow love truly is forever.

Mom Skanes’ Marshmallow Squares

Makes 16 to 20, depending upon size.

Ingredients

For the marshmallow:

2 packages of gelatin

½ cup cold water

2 cups white sugar

1 cup boiling water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

A few drops of red food coloring (optional)

Sifted confectioner’s sugar for rolling

For the crust:

½ cup butter, softened

½ cup packed brown sugar

1½ cups white flour

Directions

For the crust:

1. Preheat oven to 300 F.

2. Cream butter and sugar together.

3. Mix in flour (only until combined).

4. Turn mixture into a 9-by-9-inch pan and press into a uniform thickness of crust.

5. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

Note: The crust should still be a little warm when you add the marshmallow mixture.

For the marshmallow:

1. Soften the gelatin in the cold water for 5 minutes.

2. Place the softened gelatin, sugar, boiling water and vanilla extract in the bowl of a mixer.

3. Start on low speed, gradually moving to high speed, beating the ingredients until you have a thick marshmallow (about 10 minutes).

4. Pour the marshmallow onto the still-warm crust.

5. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set (about three hours).

6. Remove the pan from the refrigerator and let stand for 10 minutes. (This will make the crust easier to cut.)

7. Cut into squares.

8. Roll the marshmallow (top and sides) in sweet coconut.

Top photo: Marshmallow squares. Credit: Sharon Hunt



Zester Daily contributor Sharon Hunt is a confirmed generalist. Her interests are wide-ranging—although food is her great passion—and her credits include Reader's Digest, The Globe and Mail newspaper, "Edible" publications, Culinate.com, Chicago Sun-Times and Gastronomica. She blogs about food, family and memories at meetjustdownthehall.

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