“Where the hell did I go wrong”?
I had decided I was going to make Kahlua marshmallows. We had a lot of alcohol left over from our wedding, so I’ve been trying to work it into holiday desserts. To set the stage for you, this wasn’t a random, spur of the moment decision. I had been researching how to make homemade marshmallows for WEEKS. I was prepared, or so I thought. In reality, all my preparation led to two epic fails and a very reluctant third and final attempt.
Why am I sharing all this gloomy news about how homemade marshmallows are difficult? Because it’s the truth, or at least it’s my truth. Also because a lot of recipes out there don’t provide insight into failures that occur during recipe testing. There is a lot of knowledge that isn’t conveyed through a recipe; actions that some of us might never think to take or only realize after the fact. That’s why I’m focusing this post on where I went wrong, and how I turned my failures into actions that eventually ended up in really good marshmallows. So grab your favorite drink and a comfy seat because I have a lot of information coming your way!
I want to start off by saying that I’m not trying to discourage anyone from making marshmallows at home. I simply want to share my knowledge to provide you with a good foundation to be successful. Homemade marshmallows are not easy, but with patience and diligence, anyone can be successful.
First and foremost, do some research on homemade marshmallows. Don’t just read this post; go out and read a bunch of different marshmallow recipes. My recipe is adapted from Alton Brown, but I also read an article from The Flavor Bender a few times. It is very detailed and is a good source in understanding the components of the whole process.
Second, the recipe requires boiling a sugar syrup to 240 degrees, which is in the soft ball stage. If that is intimidating or you’ve had a bad experience in the past, there’s really no way to get around this step. Boiling sugar sounds scary, but it really just requires diligence so don’t give up just yet! You will need a candy thermometer to ensure the sugar gets up to the right temperature. If you are familiar with making candy, then you may be able to test that the sugar has reached soft ball stage without a thermometer; however, this would require a thorough understanding of the stages sugar goes through when heated. All in all, it’s just easier to use the thermometer. Trust me on this one; I’ve been that person who thought they could get away with not using a thermometer.
I’ll admit, my first attempt at these marshmallows was overly ambitious. I had two ideas working against me. First, I cut the recipe in half. I have taken a lot of cooking classes and consumed plenty of culinary information to feel confident making adjustments to recipes prior to trying them once. So I found this marshmallow recipe, did my research, and thought sure cutting it in half won’t matter. Wrong. This isn’t savory cooking I was adjusting, this is baking. I was messing with science. The consistency was just all wrong. The marshmallows didn’t fluff like they were supposed to, and they hung out in a stage where they seemed overly runny. I can’t be 100 percent sure cutting the recipe in half effected the consistency, but it makes sense that it would make an impact.
Second, I tried to make the marshmallows mini. Every recipe I read called for you to let the marshmallows set in a brownie or cake pan. Alton Brown’s recipe mentioned that you can put the marshmallow in a piping bag right after whipping, and pipe out rows onto a baking sheet which you can later cut into little marshmallows. Looking at all my steps thus far in retrospect, I should have realized was that the runny consistency would create a nightmare for piping. Instead, I was flustered and focused on finishing what I had originally set out to do. I added the marshmallow mixture to a bag and piped it onto a sheet tray. It promptly went from a something sort of resembling a cylinder to a complete blob. Moral of this story – just put the marshmallows in a pan; don’t try to get all fancy making mini ones. Fail #1 complete.
After falling flat on my face the first time, I did what any logical person would do: I jumped in and tried again. This time I decided to make the entire recipe. I switched out some of the ingredients, but the quantities remained the same. I followed the recipe instructions exactly. I boiled my sugar mixture, covered, on medium high heat for 3-4 minutes then continued to cook uncovered. I saw the sugar syrup start to rise up in the sauce pan, but I didn’t adjust the heat. The recipe didn’t tell me to turn my heat down! Before I could react appropriately, the sugar syrup had boiled all over my stove. I mean all over. Molten hot liquid sugar everywhere.
This is where my lesson from attempt #1 backfired. I followed the recipe too closely. I wasn’t paying attention to the signs right in front of me. The sugar syrup told me it was going to boil over. I saw it rise up, but I failed to turn down the heat. Was the recipe wrong to continue cooking the syrup on medium high heat? Yes and no. In my situation, yes, it was wrong. But there are so many factors that could be different between the recipe test and my attempt. For example, I was using an enameled cast iron sauce pan. It holds heat extremely well; so perhaps if I had used a different type of saucepan the sugar wouldn’t have boiled over.
My point is that we can’t recreate exactly the conditions in which the original recipe was developed. We can only do our best, pay attention to what our ingredients are telling us in the moment, and make a judgement call.
I am nothing if not persistent. Ok, in this situation that isn’t completely true. Zac convinced me to give it one last go. Being so discouraged, I put up a solid fight, but in the end I knew it would bother me forever if I didn’t succeed at these damn things once.
Just like attempt #2, I stuck with making the full recipe. I cooked the sugar syrup on medium high for 3-4 minutes covered, then took the cover off and turned the heat down to medium low. I stood patiently by my stove for about 20 minutes, babysitting my sugar syrup. There were a couple times when the syrup started to rise, so I turned the heat down a little lower. Having the heat turn down caused the syrup to take longer to come to temperature, but it didn’t boil over!
With the first major step complete, I started whipping the syrup and gelatin together. From my 1st attempt I knew the consistency wasn’t correct. The recipe called for whipping the mixture for 12-15 minutes on high, which just felt like a long time. I trusted the process and whipped for about 13 minutes before checking the consistency. It was better, but still not as thick as I wanted. So I continued mixing for another 2 minutes, added in my vanilla and expresso powdered, and mixed again for another minute. Now I had a marshmallow mixture that was thick and glossy. I poured it carefully into my pan and set it aside overnight.
When I went to check the marshmallows the following day, they were fluffy and supple. If I pressed them lightly with my finger, they bounced back to their original shape. I had succeeded.
I hope my short novel helps you in understanding that sometimes recipes just fail. It’s not always because you did something wrong, and it’s not a reason to stay discouraged. It’s just a matter of looking at your steps, the signs around you in your kitchen, and having the courage to step outside the recipe when it feels right.
Coat all utensils with unsalted butter or non-stick spray prior to using them to make marshmallows.
Coat your baking pan with unsalted butter or non-stick spray prior to coating with the sugar/cornstarch mix. Sprinkle more sugar/cornstarch mix than you think you need.
Most recipes call for corn syrup. Personally I just don’t like cooking with corn syrup, so I switch it out for agave nectar. Both will work fine.
Pay very close attention when your sugar syrup is cooking. If it looks like it might boil over, turn down the heat or turn the heat off completely until you have it under control.
Don’t skip using a candy thermometer.
Mix your espresso powder and vanilla in a small bowl prior to adding during the last minute of whipping. This will ensure the espresso dissolves and doesn’t leave granules in the finished marshmallow.
If the consistency of the marshmallow looks too thin after whipping for a while, then whip longer. The conditions of your kitchen may require a shorter or longer whip time.
Don’t cut the marshmallows before allowing them to rest for a minimum of 6 hours. It will result in a sticky mess.
Adapted from Alton Brown
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yields: 1 8x8 pan
Shelf Life: up to 3 weeks in an air tight container on the counter
3 packets unflavored gelatin
½ c ice cold water
½ c cold Kahlua liquor
1 ½ c granulated sugar
1 c agave nectar (or corn syrup)
¼ tsp kosher salt
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
2 ½ tsp espresso powder
¼ cup powdered sugar
¼ c cornstarch
Unsalted butter (at room temperature) or non-stick spray
Whisk together the powdered sugar and cornstarch in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the Kahlua and gelatin. Attach the whisk attachment.
In a medium saucepan (preferably 2 quart), combine the cold water, granulated sugar, salt, and agave.
Place the saucepan over medium high heat. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes.
Uncover and click a candy thermometer to the side of the pot. Note: make sure the thermometer is submerged in the sugar, but not touching the bottom of the pan.
Lower the heat to medium low. Cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees. This can take up to 20 minutes. Note: lowering the heat to medium low will help to prevent the mixture from boiling over. Monitor the mixture closely, and if you see it beginning to bubble up, lower the heat slightly.
Once the syrup reaches 240 degrees, remove from the heat.
Turn the mixer to low speed. With the mixer running, slowly poor in the syrup, making sure to aim for the side of the bowl and not the gelatin. Note: pouring the syrup directly onto the gelatin could scorch the gelatin.
Increase the speed to high once all the syrup is added. Whip the mixture for 13-16 minutes. The mixture will become very thick. Combine the espresso powdered and vanilla in a separate small bowl. Add to the marshmallow mixture during the last minute of whipping. Note: I whipped my marshmallows for 15 minutes, added the vanilla, and whipped for another minute.
While the marshmallows are mixing, grease an 8x8 baking pan with unsalted butter or spray with non-stick spray. Generously sprinkle the sugar/cornstarch mixture around the pan. Grease or spray the utensil you will use to scrap the marshmallow into the pan. Note: you can also use a 9x13 baking pan, but your marshmallows will be flatter.
Once the mixture has finished whipping, transfer to the baking pan. Sprinkle the top generously with the sugar/cornstarch mixture. Let sit at room temperature, uncovered for a minimum of 6 hours. Allowing them to sit overnight is better.
Once ready, grease or spray a sharp knife or pizza cutter. Sprinkle the knife or pizza cutter with the sugar/cornstarch mixture. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board. Cut the marshmallow evenly into squares, recoating the knife as needed. Sprinkle the cut marshmallows with the sugar/cornstarch mixture. Note: you can cut the marshmallows to whatever size you desire. I prefer smaller ones, so I started by cutting large strips. Cutting those strips in half lengthwise, then turning them on their side and cutting in half lengthwise again. From 1 large strip I ended with 4 smaller strips. I would then cut that with a pizza cutter into small cubes.