With the memory of a made-from-scratch marshmallow still fresh, Marion Cunningham preaches the joys of that fluffy, snow-white, comforting confection.
"Marshmallow is a very gentle sweet," says the author of more than half a dozen books on traditional American cooking. "It's such an honest kind of thing," uncomplicated and simple to eat. She has just finished a handmade marshmallow served at a gathering of bakers in her home in northern California. "It's another form of Prozac," she continues, laughing. "Very calming."
Once the butt of food jokes, an ingredient relegated to campfires and back-of-the-box recipes, the humble marshmallow has bounced back to respectability.
At the six-month-old Drink City in Grand Central Station in New York, home to a rotating menu of 20 different kinds of hot chocolate (including chili pepper), beverages can be dressed up with a two-inch square of homemade pillowy pleasure. Some patrons don't bother with anything to drink, though.
"People come in just to buy marshmallows," which are priced at $10 a dozen, says Tonya Heslet, director of operations.
San Francisco pastry chef David Lebovitz, author of "Room for Dessert" (HarperCollins, $30), rang in the new year with homemade marshmallows and frequently demonstrates the recipe in cooking classes around the country.
"People don't just want to see apple pie," he says. "Marshmallows are fun for them." A recipe for the confection was recently added to his Web site, www.davidlebovitz.com.
The difference between these special modern marshmallows and the mass-produced bagged sweets most of us are more familiar with? Today's fluff is spun from little more than sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, often some egg whites and flavoring; factory-made carry labels listing things like tetrasodium pyrophosphate. Left to firm up in the pan, the fresh marshmallow gets cut by hand, usually in squares, before being dusted with confectioner's sugar and/or cornstarch.
But better to taste the distinction. The pure flavor, dense-but-yielding texture and appealing moistness of made-from-scratch distances itself from the dull, dry, achingly sweet commercial variety.
"A homemade marshmallow is really a revelation," says Peter Brett, pastry chef of the Melrose restaurant in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Washington. Not only does it remind people of their childhood, he says, "It's like magic, simple syrup turning into marshmallow."
For special events, he frequently treats guests to s'mores, elevating that campfire classic by sandwiching homemade marshmallow and chocolate flavored with orange rind between graham crackers that are also baked from scratch. (A blast of heat from a propane torch gives the marshmallow its proper crisp-smoky edge and melting interior.) Brett is a recent convert to the fresh fashion. Before he discovered a recipe in a dog-eared copy of an old "Joy of Cooking," he says, "I always thought marshmallow was something that had to be made in 500-gallon vats in a big factory, something very mysterious."
Its middlebrow image in the United States belies the fact that marshmallow--originally coaxed from the sweet-tasting roots of a medicinal plant (Althaea officinalis)--is something one can find in the repertoire of the French.
Roland Messnier, the White House pastry chef, remembers making endless sheets of guimauve to adorn the plates of petit fours for guests of the Savoy Hotel in London, where he worked in the 1960s.
"I like marshmallow," he casts his vote. But it has been since the Carter administration and some edible snowmen that the master of sugar at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has made marshmallow from scratch. (The Clintons got store-bought marshmallows on their sweet potatoes over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, it turns out.)
Messnier sees the interest in fresh marshmallows "like everything else, it has a cycle. Restaurants are trying to do something new. Why not marshmallow?"
That's the sentiment of the chic Jean-Georges restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in New York, which surprises its lunch and room service guests with marshmallows flavored with vanilla and orange blossom water. And a philosophy shared by Lisa Fleming, who added homemade marshmallows to her cookie business in Santa Barbara, Ocean View Sweets, a year and a half ago.
"There's a lot of fudge out there, a lot of toffee," says Fleming, who grew up watching her grandmother make marshmallows in Michigan and carries on the tradition with her daughter, Tracy. "I wanted to do something unusual." Their vanilla, hazelnut, cinnamon sugar and toasted coconut marshmallows, priced at $10 a pound, prove extraordinary in their simplicity and flavor. Fans, including visitors to a friend's farm market stand in nearby Ojai, snatch up an average of 100 pounds of the confection each week.
"People walk by and see 'homemade marshmallows' and take a step back," says Fleming, who recently expanded production to six days a week. She says she hears "I didn't know you could do that!" all the time. Marshmallows "bring back fond memories of campfires, beach parties . . . and dropping them into hot cocoa." They're also versatile. At home, Fleming likes to halve marshmallows and add them to a tropical fruit salad of papaya and mango, set off with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
"They're not so hard in the making, but in the cutting," shares Fleming, who uses a pizza cutter to slice through a pan of sticky marshmallow.
A few additional tips from the pros for anyone interested in whipping up a bit of nostalgia:
* Try using fresh vanilla beans to flavor your marshmallows.
* Kitchen shears, treated with nonstick spray, also help cut through the finished product.
* Omit the gelatin from a marshmallow recipe, offers chef Nancy Silverton of Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles--where the stuff is cut into rounds that fit snugly atop piping hot mugs of hot chocolate--and what you get is "an amazing sauce for hot fudge sundaes."
And while you should feel free to experiment with flavor, Lebovitz, a purist, believes it's best not too to stray too far from what's simple: "Marshmallows should be fun, not haute cuisine."