We live in a society of standardization, mass production and massive, Walmart-sized economies of scale. Maybe that's why artisanal has become a current buzzword. Both reassuringly old-fashioned and coolly contemporary, the artisanal designation evokes the individual, the authentic, the handcrafted, the real.
As the artisanal trend has grown, tasks that our great-great-grandmothers once considered difficult and time-consuming -- soap-making, chicken-raising, leather-crafting -- have become leisure activities for jaded urbanites. Tools and implements that wouldn't look out of place in a Walker Evans Depression-era photograph are revealed as hugely expensive luxury goods, individually hand-turned by Brooklyn hipsters.
Of course, by the time Domino's released an "artisanal" pizza in 2011 -- basically, this meant the pie was rectangular and a bit charred at the edges -- the term had started to lose its original cachet.
As irritating as the artisanal trend can be, there are places where it means something, especially when it comes to food. Personally, I was converted by the artisanal marshmallow, which is so far away from the store-bought packaged marshmallow that it seems like an entirely different food product.
Most of us grew up on commercial marshmallows, toasting them over campfires, stretching them into sticky webs. Perhaps we were impressed by the industrial "jet-puffed" process. Maybe we were dazzled by the rainbow hues of the mini-marshmallow. Somehow, we forgot that the humble marshmallow can be made at home.
The use of the marshmallow plant in sweets traces back to ancient Egypt. The plant was used medicinally in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, often as a cure for sore throat. The modern marshmallow, which replaced the plant-derived thickener with egg whites or gelatine, resurfaced as a confection in 19th-century Paris. It has undergone a recent foodie resurgence, in France and elsewhere, with boutique confectioners crafting pillowy treats in a range of flavours, from espresso to salted toffee to bergamot to Lillet Blanc.
Although I was eager to make my own marshmallows, I had some trepidations. Marshmallows are confections, and anything involving a candy thermometer makes me nervous. While cooking allows for a certain free-styling spontaneity, candy-making is more like advanced chemistry.
I've heard many candy-makers lament that they've made the exact same recipe on two different days. One day, perfection. Another day, disaster. Failure or success can hinge on humidity, temperature, even state of mind. My periodic problems with caramel, for example, really come down to a failure of nerve. (How dark is "a dark amber" colour?)
But making marshmallows turned out to be surprisingly easy. Beyond a certain amount of clock-watching and some (literal) stickiness in getting one batch out of the pan, this was really a very straightforward process. You do need a heavy-duty stand mixer, since you need to beat the sugar syrup and gelatine mix for at least 10 minutes at high speed. (Pity the poor kitchen maids who made these in the 1800s.) You also need to do a quick cleanup so you're not dealing with hardened sugar everywhere.
But the results are absolutely worth the time and trouble. Homemade marshmallows can be combined with premium cookies and dark chocolate for high-toned s'mores. They can be melted in hot chocolate or a mocha latte. And unlike their grocery-store counterparts, they're delicious enough to serve solo, as a long, leisurely end to a good meal.
OMG homemade marshmallows
(adapted from Epicurious)
vegetable oil for brushing pan
250 ml (1 cup) water, divided
3 envelopes (15 ml or 1 tbsp each) unflavoured gelatine
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) granulated sugar
250 ml (1 cup) light corn syrup
2 ml (1/4 tsp) salt
10 ml (2 tsp) vanilla
about 250 ml (1 cup) icing sugar for coating marshmallows
Prepare a 22x22 cm (9x9 in) square metal baking pan by brushing bottom and sides with vegetable oil. Put 125 ml (1/2 cup) water in bowl of stand mixer and sprinkle gelatine over it. Stir briefly to make sure all the gelatine is in contact with water and let it soften while making the syrup.
Heat sugar, corn syrup, salt and remaining 125 ml (1/2 cup) water in a small heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, then bring to a boil over medium heat, without stirring. Put candy thermometer into syrup and continue boiling, without stirring, until it registers 115C (240F). Remove from heat and let stand until bubbles dissipate.
With mixer at low speed, pour hot syrup into gelatine in a thin stream down side of bowl. Increase speed to high and beat until mixture is very thick and forms a thick ribbon when beater is lifted, about 10 minutes. Beat in vanilla.
Scrape marshmallow into pan (it will be sticky) and spread evenly with dampened fingers to smooth the top. Let stand, uncovered, at room temperature until surface is no longer sticky and you can gently pull marshmallow away from the sides of pan with your fingertips, 2 to 3 hours.
Using a sieve, dust a cutting board with icing sugar. Use a spatula to pull sides of marshmallow from edges of pan, then invert onto cutting board. Dust top with icing sugar. Cut lengthwise into 8, then crosswise into 8, to form a total of 64 squares. Coat marshmallows, one at a time, in icing sugar, shaking off excess.
Can be kept, layered between sheets of wax paper in an airtight container at room temperature, for up to 1 month.
Tester's notes: This is a good basic recipe, which can be gussied up by rolling undusted marshmallows in toasted coconut or finely chopped nuts or chocolate flakes.
There was a moment of suspense when I inverted the pan over the cutting board, but with a little finessing, the marshmallows came out in one piece. (It might be worth doing what many other recipes do and sift a mixture of icing sugar and cornstarch over the bottom of the pan.) It's also easier to cut the marshmallows if you wet or lightly grease the knife.
Toasted walnut maple marshmallows
(adapted from Mini Treats and Hand-held Sweets by Abigail Johnson Dodge)
150 ml (2/3 cup) icing sugar
125 ml (1/2 cup) cornstarch
175 ml (3/4 cup) water
3 envelopes (15 ml or 1 tbsp each) unflavoured powdered gelatine
500 ml (2 cups) pure maple syrup (not imitation pancake syrup)
150 ml (2/3 cup) finely chopped walnuts, toasted
5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla
In a small bowl, whisk together icing sugar and cornstarch. Lightly grease a 22x33 cm (9x13 in) baking pan and sift about 1/3 of the sugar-cornstarch mixture evenly over bottom of pan.
Pour the water into bowl of heavy-duty stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment and sprinkle gelatine over top. Let it sit until gelatine is moist and plump, about 5 minutes. Add the salt. (The granules will stay on top of gelatine for now.)
Put the maple syrup into a medium heavy saucepan. Set a candy thermometer in the pan and cook, without stirring, over medium heat until boiling. Boil, without stirring, until syrup reaches 120C (248F). (Keep an eye on the pot as the syrup bubbles up high, and reduce heat slightly if syrup gets too close to bubbling over).
With the mixer on medium-low speed, slowly and carefully pour hot syrup into the gelatine mixture is a thin stream down side of bowl. Gradually increase the speed to medium-high and beat until mixture is very thick and light in colour, about 10 minutes. The outside of the bowl will still feel quite warm. Add the walnuts and vanilla and beat until blended, about 1 minute. (It's important to work with the marshmallow while it's still warm -- the colder it gets, the stiffer and more difficult it is to spread.)
Scrape the marshmallow mixture into the pan and, using a large offset spatula, spread evenly. Set aside, uncovered and at room temperature, until completely cool, firm to the touch, and no longer tacky, about 4 hours.
Using your fingers, peel the marshmallow away from the edges of the pan. The marshmallow will fall back to the edge but will no longer be stuck. Sift about half the remaining sugar-cornstarch mixture over the top of the marshmallow and place the remaining mixture into a medium bowl. Put a large cutting board on top of the pan and invert the pan onto the cutting board. Lift off the pan, using your fingers to help peel the marshmallow away from the pan if necessary.
Using a lightly greased sharp knife, cut the marshmallow lengthwise into 6 equal strips and then cut each strip into 10 pieces. Toss the marshmallows, in batches, in the remaining cornstarch-sugar mixture until lightly but thoroughly coated. Will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.
Tester's notes: These were pretty heavenly. The recipe makes resolute use of maple syrup, so the marshmallows are sweet but also have a slightly dark tang. The texture was incredibly light and tender, and they were quite easy to work with.