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What are Marshmallows?

As a kid, I always imagined the marshmallow to be some kind of plant.  I remember being surprised to learn that that stuff in the rocky road ice cream, that I just dropped in my hot chocolate, that I’m roasting over the fire, was not actually from a plant.  Later on I was surprised again to learn that the marshmallow is indeed a plant, no matter what it is that we eat as a confection.

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Althaea officinales, aka the marshmallow plant

The marshmallow is a nice looking green plant with white flowers, indigenous to the Mediterranean region.  The first people to use it for anything were the ancient Egyptians, who found it to make nice decorations, and who also mashed up its flowers, roots and leaves for herbal medicine.  It was used to deal with irritated mucous membranes and different kinds of ulcers.  There was also a kind of ancient confection that they Egyptians developed, made from the roots of the plants, that evolved into the common Middle Eastern confection called halva, as well as what we know as the marshmallow today.

The ancient Egyptian idea was to boil down the pith contained within the stem of the plant until it turned into a syrup.  When it was dried out, you had something resembling the modern marshmallow.  A 19th-century French recipe added egg whites, following a resurgence in the candy’s popularity.  The egg white recipe produced more of the product with less work, so sales boomed.  Another method used gelatin, and still another brought in corn starch.  This was industrial food-making, and the method was easy to copy.  Marshmallow’s popularity was reborn in the industrialized world.

Industrialization further changed the process.  After World War II, Greek-American confectioner Alex Doumakes came up with a process to produce even more marshmallows.  His mechanized process is where the candy we think of as the marshmallow today came from.  These were the first cylindrical, puffy marshmallows, sometimes colored, sometimes flavored.  They could be shaped into anything, and found their way into all kinds of candies.  The most popular ones are the marshmallow peeps, which are so common during Easter.

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A more familiar marshmallow, these days

This new marshmallow marked the point where they no longer used the marshmallow plant anymore.  Instead of sap from the marshmallow flower, Doumakes’ marshmallow recipe involves only gelatin, egg whites and sugar.  The classic marshmallow was strictly vegetable, but the modern one includes animal products, though there are vegan marshmallows that use agar (a jelly-like substance derived from algae) instead of egg whites and gelatin.  Without the addition of thickeners like gelatin or xanthan gum, the spongy marshmallow is not possible, and you’re left with marshmallow creme, which also has its uses, often in ice cream or the famous Marshmallow Fluff.

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The modern marshmallow plant?

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