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Marshmallow Peeps

Bake for 10 to 12 guests

Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page M08

I am a trained chef. Soufflés don't faze me, nor do meringues or spun sugar. I've even made homemade croissants (though I wouldn't do it again). But this spring, I decided to take on a truly Herculean task: a homemade version of that Easter-time staple, chick-shaped marshmallow Peeps.

"Why would you do that?" my friend Megan asked, horrified. "The ones at the store are soooooo good."

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She had a point. Nearly $10 worth of ingredients and an afternoon of cooking, piping and coloring hardly seem worth it when you can buy 15 of the original Peeps chicks for $1.39.

"But they always taste stale," I complained.

"You can't mess with a classic," Megan warned.

Peeps, I discovered, are a cult food. And like any following, its adherents are fanatically loyal. Everyone has a Peeps memory: Mine involves trips to the drug store with my grandmother and sister to pick out Easter-time candy. My older sister, who ruled the roost, insisted on having the pink marshmallow chicks all for herself, leaving me with what I deemed the clearly inferior yellow Peeps.

More than 20 years later, I now realize that yellow is the classic. Of the 4.2 million marshmallow shapes made each day at Just Born's Bethlehem, Pa., factory, yellow chicks are far more ubiquitous than their pink, lavender or blue brethren. The most popular way is to eat them fresh out of the box -- though, in a sugared frenzy, Peeps-lovers have been known to microwave, freeze, roast or use them as a pizza topping.

At Just Born's factory, chick making is serious business, involving kettles of mallowy mixture, conveyor belts and, no joke, a wind tunnel that stirs up sugar so each chick is evenly coated.

In other words, don't try this at home. But despite this, I still felt I could give Just Born a run for its money. So I invited over a few friends, popped open a bottle of wine, and got started.

Making homegrown chicks is a lot easier than it sounds. Marshmallows are just boiled sugar mixed with gelatin, whipped into a sticky, sugary cloud. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. Then comes the fun part: Shaping them. This is where having sense of humor -- and a tolerance for getting really sticky -- helps. Our first attempts looked like oversized seals. Our second, like lumpy, half-melted snowmen. But with a little practice -- and a douse of yellow food paint, yellow sugar and chocolate syrup eyes -- they soon looked like happy Easter chicks. The truly artistically challenged can spread the marshmallows into a shallow pan dusted with cornflower, then cut them out with an Easter cookie cutter.

And the taste? If I dare say it, there's nothing like homemade. Jane Black

Marshmallow Peeps

Ingredients

1/3 cup cold water

1 small envelope ( 1/4 ounce) unflavored gelatin (2 1/2 teaspoons)


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