Jill McKenna is a marshmallow-making maniac.
When her son Gillen (now 13) was a baby, she sampled a marshmallow while making s'mores (those chocolate, graham cracker and marshmallow treats). And after popping a marshmallow in her mouth, she decided that it was way too sweet, too flavorless and had an unappealing gummy-yet-resistant texture.
"I decided that I could do better, so I went on a marshmallow-making binge and over the course of several holidays came up with a few variations that our family and friends really like," McKenna writes, adding that Halloween and Christmas are huge events for her family.
"My marshmallow recipe is not my original work, but the variations are mine. I grab, collect, and just plain steal recipes from everywhere, so I have no idea where this one originated."
She says that although she is an avid cook, she comes from a long line of "anti-cooks."
"My mother cannot reliably boil water, and lost the recipe for ice cubes 30 years ago," she says. "So I took over most of the holiday baking and candy-making very early, around junior high school age."
She says that her mother, who used to hate marshmallows (and refused to eat them), now adores her homemade 'mallows. In fact, she mandates that McKenna make them for every holiday.
For Halloween she cuts them into a variety of holiday-themed shapes, everything from pumpkins to ghosts to bats. For Christmas, she cuts them into rectangles and dips one end into melted bittersweet chocolate.
Or, for special Christmas gifts, she packages a homemade marshmallow in a cellophane bag along with ¼ cup shaved dark chocolate. She puts the bag in a holiday-themed mug and writes an instruction card. The message says, "Add warm milk to shaved chocolate. When chocolate has melted, place marshmallow on top. Sip until boss shuts up, dog stops barking, or children clean their rooms. Do not share, as this treat was made especially with you in mind."
Yield: one 9-by-12-inch pan (yield varies according to how marshmallows are cut out)
2 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup chilled water
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract, or almond extract, or peppermint extract, or orange extract or lemon extract (avoid imitations and synthetics)
Optional: a few drops food coloring
2 cups powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Place gelatin and chilled water in bowl of stand mixer with whisk attachment. Let stand 30 minutes.
2. Combine granulated sugar, corn syrup, salt and 1/2 cup water in medium-size, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Place over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves. Rinse sides of pan with wet pastry brush to dissolve crystals that may form. Raise heat to high. Cook syrup mixture until it reaches firm-ball stage, 244 degrees (measured with a candy thermometer). Immediately remove pan from heat.
3. With mixer on low speed, slowly pour syrup into softened gelatin. Increase mixer speed to high; beat until mixture thickens, turns white, and almost triples in volume (15 to 20 minutes). Add extract and optional food coloring if desired; beat to incorporate.
4. Coat an 8-by-12-inch glass baking dish pan with powdered sugar. Pour marshmallow mixture into pan. Dust top with powdered sugar. Wet hands and pat to smooth. Dust again with powdered sugar and let stand, uncovered, overnight. (This is the drying step.)
5. Turn on to board and cut marshmallows with dry hot knife. Dust with more powdered sugar.
1. Use heated open-top metal cookie cutters in ghost shapes for Halloween. Make eyes with tiny dots of melted chocolate, applied with toothpick.
2. Use heated open-top metal cookie cutter in bat or owl shape. Dip finished marshmallows into melted bittersweet chocolate. Let dry overnight.
3. Use heated open-top metal cookie cutter in leaf shape for autumn leaves. Drizzle melted confectionery coating (sold at craft stores) in a variety of autumn colors over cut marshmallow shapes.
4. Tint marshmallow mixture yellow or gold; cut in crescent-shapes (again with the heated open-top metal cookie cutter) for spooky harvest moons.
5. Use heated open-top metal cookie cutter in witch-hat shape for witch hats. Spread melted bittersweet chocolate across hat; decorate either brim or crown with colored sprinkles. (You CAN get ridiculous with this and pipe little bows but I think the point of making fancy marshmallows is that they're relatively easy.)
6. For Christmas, cut marshmallows into rectangles and dip half of each into melted bittersweet chocolate. Place on waxed paper until chocolate hardens.