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Sweet nothings, light as air

Flavor them flowery, color them pastel. These handmade marshmallows are seriously fun.

February 11, 2004|Sarah Carter | Times Test Kitchen Intern

Pale and soft, you'll see them in the shape of fat, powdery pastel cubes tucked into a cellophane bag as a souvenir from Paris. They show up at the fanciest confectioners as long, rectangular spears in pretty taffy colors -- pale yellow, minty green, lilac -- looking almost like flowers displayed in a vase. You almost don't want to eat them. Or they might be pure white, melted into the top of a berry crumble at a Beverly Hills restaurant, the edges browned, melty, a little chewy.

Marshmallows have grown up.

Handmade marshmallows have as little to do with the supermarket variety as a snow cone does with sorbet. Scented faintly with rose or orange blossom, flavored subtly with pistachio or lavender or coconut, these are tender, luscious pillows of sweetness and air. Best of all, the ingredients are pure.

Lately, pastry chefs have been fashioning house-made marshmallows into elegant -- or fun -- desserts.

Dressed-up s'mores have been showing up all over town. At One Pico at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, marshmallows are skewered and sandwiched between graham crackers and roasted to just this side of meltiness, ready for dipping in hot fudge or caramel sauce.

But they also can go much more elegant: At Maple Drive, they appear in a wild berry gratin with marshmallow meringue. And at Lucques, for Valentine's Day, pastry chef Roxana Jullapat will be serving ginger marshmallow candy -- ginger-flavored hearts flecked with crystallized ginger.

Technically, marshmallows are candy. All that's involved is sugar, corn syrup, powdered gelatin and, if you like, a flavoring and color.

To make them, just combine sugar, corn syrup and water and cook until the mixture reaches a temperature of 235 degrees -- the "soft ball stage." (If you don't have a candy thermometer, spoon a little of the hot mixture into a bowl of cold water. If you can gather it into a soft ball with your fingers, you're there.) Take it off the heat and add more corn syrup to prevent the sugar from overcooking and congealing. Meanwhile, soften powdered gelatin in water.

Next, whip the sugar syrup into the gelatin so that the liquid cools slowly as air is incorporated. This causes the marshmallows to change from a dull gray-brown to a shiny snow white. As the color changes dramatically, the texture changes too, until it's transformed from a thin syrup into a fluffy, pillow-like froth.

It takes some time: The marshmallows won't reach their full volume until they've been whipped about 13 to 15 minutes.

With just a little vanilla to add depth of flavor, homemade marshmallows are delicious. Cut them into fat squares or fanciful shapes, then dust with powdered sugar.

But don't stop there. The white base makes an excellent medium for experimenting with aromas and flavors and colors.

Nut extracts work beautifully with marshmallows and are one way to add a smooth, full-bodied taste. The fragrant nuttiness of almond is immediately pleasing and leaves a rich, lingering aftertaste; hazelnut and pistachio extracts also work well.

For cassis, use puree rather than an extract; the natural flavor of the fruit comes through beautifully. The deep purple-red hue of the puree turns the marshmallows a gorgeous, vibrant shade of purple-pink.

Lavender, with its intoxicating fragrance, produces an unusual, slightly less sugary treat. On its own, lavender tends to have a very strong perfume, but in marshmallows it is gentle and soft. Monin makes lavender syrup, as well as dozens of other flavors, from pear to cinnamon to blood orange. Any of these would be fine for flavoring marshmallows.

After you add flavoring, add a few drops of food coloring, if you wish. Next, refrigerate the marshmallows to allow the gelatin to set. They can then be cut in whatever shape and size you like, using a sharp knife or cookie cutter to remove them from the pan. Dust them with powdered sugar to smooth the sticky surface.

Vanilla marshmallows are wonderful in desserts, such as strawberry-marshmallow brulee or our homemade take on the classic Mallomar. A little dusting of edible gold dust, and one cookie is as dressy and sumptuous as an elegant little cake.

*

Marshmallows

Total Time: 30 minutes, plus overnight chilling

Servings: Makes 2 dozen large marshmallows

3/4 cup water, divided

1 1/2packets (1 1/2 teaspoons)

powdered gelatin

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2cup light corn syrup, divided

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2cup confectioner's sugar,

divided

1. Place 6 tablespoons water in a 5-quart mixing bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the water and let the mixture stand for 5 minutes. Place the bowl over a medium saucepan of gently simmering water and allow the gelatin to dissolve without stirring. This should take 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat and set aside.

2. In a small saucepan, combine the remaining water, the sugar and one-fourth cup corn syrup. Cook the mixture over high heat until it reaches 235 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove the mixture from the heat and pour in the remaining corn syrup.

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