Softer and sweeter when made at home.

Homemade marshmallows by poppet with a camera, on Flickr (CC license) (cropped)

The Egyptians harvested and used the gummy extract of the root of the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis) around 2000 B.C. to make a honey confection for pharaohs. This evolved into halva, a chewy nut candy shared by many Mideastern cultures. It took a bit longer for Western culture to catch up–in the Middle Ages, Europeans used marshmallow root extract as medicine to treat sore throats.

In the 19th century, the French took the next evolutionary step. They used the marshmallow root extract to bind a rosewater-flavored meringue, creating a paste. The paste would be packed into powdered molds and turned out when set, or pulled into long ropes and twisted together. The sponge-y confection didn’t have a particularly exciting name; the marshmallow plant’s French name is guimauve, and so it became pâte de guimauve.

Some chefs in the late 19th and early 20th century started to substitute gum arabic for the marshmallow root extract for a few reasons. One is that the whole marshmallow plant is edible–flowers and all–and since harvesting the root kills the plant, it’s not particularly efficient to harvest all the roots until you’re ready for a massive salad. (It may not sound like a major concern, but remember that the marshmallow extracts headed to France in the 19th century were often imported from Syria and Persia, which didn’t exactly operate under an agribusinesses model. The people harvesting the roots were the ones who needed to eat the plants.) Plus, the plant is a perennial, so it’s weighing cash today against salad in the future.

By contrast, gum arabic is the sap of the acacia tree, which isn’t destroyed in the harvesting (not that it super loves having its bark pulled off and its dry sap picked out by hand, but the tree will generally live). The acacia tree isn’t a source of any other food in the regions where gum arabic is harvested, and the gum has to be dried for a year anyhow, so its harvest and sale are somewhat less seasonal than marshmallow root extract.

(To be fair, other varieties of acacia trees do have additional edible aspects. Australian Aborigines enjoy the seeds and in Thailand and Burma, the young shoots of the plant show up in stir-frys. But gum arabic, then and now, is typically harvested from the gum belt in Africa, and there’s no real record of Africa doing anything else, culinarily speaking, with acacia trees. The Egyptians, who had figured out marshmallow root some 3800 years before the French, used gum arabic to make paint.)

Ultimately, the mass production of gelatin (something we discussed in our post for Yesterdish’s Fort Knox Pie) would lead to its use in the modern marshmallow. Gelatin has something in common, actually, with the rosewater in the earlier pâte de guimauve: they’re by-products. Gelatin is a by-product of meat production and rosewater is a by-product of the creation of rose oil for perfumes.

From a box sold in River Forest, Illinois.


2 Tablespoons gelatin combined with 3/4 cup of cold water

Let stand about 5 minutes or longer until thick.

2 cups of granulated can[e] sugar
3/4 cup water
1 cup white Karo syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla or other flavoring
1/2 teaspoon salt

Any desired coloring may be added when marshmallow is of medium consistency.

Cook sugar, 3/4 cup water, and 1/2 cup of the syrup until it spins a thread or forms a firm ball in cold water. Firm ball stage and real thin thread spins.

Then add other half of syrup. Stir well and remove from fire.

Pour into a heat proof boil and add vanilla. Beat with electric mixer, adding gelatin mixture from the start a little at a time for about 12 minutes or until marshmallow is heavy and snow white and cool.

Pour into two 7 by 7 pans and line with brown paper and powdered sugar.

Plate in refrigerator for several hours until it is firm enough to cut. Sprinkle top with powdered sugar and cut with sharp knife.

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  1. By Food Links, 05.03.2014 | Tangerine and Cinnamon March 5, 2014 at 3:34 am

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