Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Olfactory Pleasures of Marshmallow.

I have been reading Molly Birnbaum's Season to Taste. It caught my eye on the new shelf at the library, and although it has taken me a shamefully long time to read it, it has caused me to really examine and be thankful for my sense of smell. She talks about the loss and gradual regaining of her sense of smell after an accident. At first it seemed that the scents that came back were related to her emotional state, either to happiness or anxiety. After a few years when it seemed she had regained almost all of what was lost, she discovered that she had trouble "labeling" scents when she smelled them. This in particular I have thought about a lot. When walking through the neighborhood after dinner tonight, I swear I smelled ketchup right behind the smell of a charcoal grill, a blistery hot dog blackened in spots. If I lost my sense of smell for a few years and then smelled this same scene again, would I recognize it the same? Could I put my finger on it?

The neighborhood stroll after dinner tonight was much needed since I made and torched kitchen s'mores for our dessert. This was the first time I have used my culinary torch since my Baked Alaska escapades one year ago, and as the marshmallow toasted, charred in places, the wonderful scent of sugar caramelization reminded me yet again of Molly's book. Charred marshmallow is singular, no other sweet when toasted smells the same, and I was shocked that this small act instantly transported me to a much younger self - the way that smells often do.

Instead of being fashionably late in food trends, I end up being so tardy that I feel that I am indeed starting it again. Wasn't everybody and their uncle making marshmallows a few years ago, before the French Macaroon and the Cupcake? I'm so late I'm afraid that I'm wishing I were the person that made marshmallow so popular to begin with.

In my mind, this may have been another Mollie: Mollie Weizenberg. I remember reading her article in Bon Appetit, which she used to do monthly at the time. (It was probably the main reason I kept my subscription as long as I did.) She knew she would marry a man who had made her marshmallows from scratch. After her eloquent account, it seemed like she had convinced everyone to make marshmallow, sticky variations appearing everywhere I looked. I can't say that I ever made marshmallows for the sake of making them. Since reading her story, I have made variations for cookies and for frostings, but never cut them into fat homemade squares with the sole intention of torching them in a bonfire.

homemade grahams.

The beauty of my kitchen life is that I never know what is going to happen from day to day. I have really stopped planning meals. This is so much better for my creativity, since I make what is available and turn it into what I have a taste for. I have a few staple things that usually appear weekly: some kind of taco, some kind of fermented condiment, sourdough concoction, but as for everything else it's up in the air. When the Kiddo and I decided to go out to the Farm this weekend, my Dad texted me to see if my urban boy would like to camp out with him. When I asked, he said enthusiastically "Yes! And we can eat marshmallows!" So with that statement, my personal marshmallow trend emerged. A day later, a batch of bouncy, white mallows in hand cut squares grace my counter. And, I see what all the fuss over homemade marshmallow was all about.

I used the recipe from Gourmet, via Smitten Kitchen, which was written about 10 years prior to Molly Weizenberg's "Fluff Piece". It's curious, that maybe trends are reinvented every decade - and maybe I'm just rutted in the half-life. The recipe uses more gelatin than I've ever used in a single recipe before: 2 T. plus 2 1/2 t. It softens in a half cup of water when the sugar mixture is coming up to temperature. I have to say that my heightened awareness of my olfactories made me wonder if I would enjoy these marshmallows, the gelatin swelled in the water and smelled animalistic, and not really in a good way. I actually tried to keep myself from noticing the gaminess as the 140 degree syrup was poured over the softened mass, I stirred with a wooden spoon to combine it before letting the KitchenAid have at it.

I had faith in the sugar content, and in the remainder of the vanilla bean stolen from the bottle of vanilla extract. I had used nearly all of the waning bottle in the graham crackers, and fortunately could pillage the precious seeds. I also added a teaspoon of almond extract, just to up the flavorant a bit in case the gelatin didn't tame itself in the fridge...

The marshmallows work at promised. I poured out a mass of sticky goo, and quickly spread it into a prepared pan with a silicone spatula. I did not touch it with my fingers. It hardened quickly as it cooled, leaving my whisk coated in spongy, sticky white but strangely melted off without effort when soaked for 5 minutes in soapy warm water. The whole process seemed easier than buying a bag of marshmallows to tell the truth, and even though I used corn syrup which was probably genetically modified, I comfort myself with the knowledge of a one week shelf life.

The flavor and texture of these marshmallows is perfect. They resist chewing and are sticky, but then give in and dissolve without coating your teeth. When eaten without smelling (which you can approximate by pinching your nose shut - I do this with almost everything after reading Molly's book), their sponginess is more pronounced, a foamy mouthful that registers as sweet. When eaten with a sense of smell, they are sweet but not too sweet, and the whole experience would remind you of eating a bag of Jet Puffed if they were consumed directly after being factory made. If you can call pure sugar "fresh", these are.

Though my jars of homemade components will be heading west on Friday, I couldn't wait that long to make a s'more. I had a small jar of ganache still in the fridge from a few weeks ago, and it is still good. I spread it over the grahams and then speared the mallows with bamboo skewers. I heated them gently with my torch, letting them catch fire so I could blow them out, noting the aroma of singed mallow sugar. Our open faced s'mores were more than plenty for dessert, so rich and elegant that it was a shame I didn't have more people over to share them with.

Will they taste even better outside in front of a fire? I'm pretty sure they will. When the nuance of fresh cut grass and nighttime dew, the smell of the dark and the country influence the sugar and cut it in two. What a privilege to have 5 senses, and what reminders to appreciate them!


  1. I remember that article by Molly Wizen, and (like you), I was a bit smitten :)

    Marshmallows are one of those things ... not as difficult as you envision, but really beautiful, don't you think?

    Kinda like those 'smores

  2. Wonderfully written. I love making homemade marshmallows.

  3. Mmm. Your words are as savory as your pictures! I am not a big fan of s'mores, I don't like the graininess of graham crackers, and I have tried alternatives like vanilla wafers. Maybe I should make my own! You definitely make the marshmallows sound wonderful!


Communication is a good thing, most of the time...