Admit it: Thanksgiving dinner isn’t really about the roasted turkey or the pumpkin pie. It’s about the sides, and there's nothing better than sweet potato casserole covered with toasted marshmallows. Even for the most dedicated cook or highfalutin eater, it’s hard to resist this kitschy classic. But this year I’m suggesting you take things to the next level and make your own marshmallows. Hostess may have closed down its Twinkie operations as of today, but with this recipe you can make your own marshmallows for a DIY Thanksgiving (or anytime) treat. Because the only thing better than a casserole topped with marshmallows is a casserole topped with homemade marshmallows.
Although candied yams or sweet potato casserole—the bright orange-fleshed sweet potato is often called a garnet or jewel yam—has been a Thanksgiving tradition for generations, most versions of the dish call for the store-bought, mass-produced marshmallows. Even the first documented addition of the marshmallow topping to candied yams appeared in the Cracker Jack Company’s Angelus Marshmallows cookbook around 1916. But long before that, Amelia Simmons’s 1796 cookbook, American Cookery, featured a similar recipe for candied and spiced sweet potatoes with sugary egg white meringues. By making your own marshmallows for your sweet potato casserole you’ll be partaking in a long culinary tradition in the United States.
Before you balk at the idea of calling more attention to the junk food gracing your Thanksgiving table, consider that marshmallows originated as a plant. Yes, a plant. Althaea officinalis is indigenous to marshy regions of Northern Africa, Asia, and Europe, and now grows around the world, mainly for medicinal purposes: The mucilaginous root of the plant has been used to treat coughs and other ailments for centuries. It’s still used in a few cough syrups today, and some translations of a Biblical passage from Job mention a ‘slimy mallow’—a reference to the substance found in the plant’s roots.
But, a sweet snack? We have Ancient Egyptians to thank for discovering that by adding sugar or other sweetening agents, this mallow could be used to create unusual confections. Later generations of pastry chefs perfected the recipe using gelatin (either animal-based or vegan/kosher varieties like guar gum) instead of Althaea officinalis. The addition of egg whites also added a certain fluff factor to create the modern-day marshmallows that graced regal tables and many mom ‘n pop shops as penny candy.
Today’s commercial marshmallows are a far cry from the original candy, but with a little work you can recreate homemade marshmallows this Thanksgiving. Try this recipe for the ultimate DIY sweet potato casserole topping. And be sure to wrap up the extras for unforgettable gifts.
The Ultimate DIY Marshmallow Recipe
about 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
3 ½ envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
½ cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
½ cup hot water
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
Special equipment: candy thermometer (a useful and impressive addition to any kitchen, about $10) and a standing or handheld electric mixer
Oil bottom and sides of a 13- by 9- by 2-inch rectangular metal baking pan and dust bottom and sides with some confectioners' sugar.
In bowl of a standing electric mixer or in a large bowl sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let stand to soften.
In a 3-quart heavy saucepan cook granulated sugar, corn syrup, hot water, and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240°F., about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is dissolved.
With standing or hand-held electric mixer beat mixture on high speed until white, thick, and nearly tripled in volume, about 6 minutes if using standing mixer or about 10 minutes if using hand-held mixer. In a small bowl with cleaned beaters beat whites (or beat by hand) until they just hold stiff peaks. Beat whites and vanilla into sugar mixture until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan without attempting to scrap down the sides of the bowl for the remaining mixture (it is extremely sticky though it will wash away easily with soap and warm water). Sift ¼ cup confectioner sugar evenly over top. Chill marshmallow, uncovered, until firm, at least 3 hours, and up to 1 day (in which case cover loosely with parchment paper).
Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto a large cutting board. Lifting up one corner of inverted pan, with fingers loosen marshmallow and let drop onto cutting board. With a large knife trim edges of marshmallow and cut marshmallow into roughly 1-inch cubes (or smaller for mini marshmallows). Sift remaining confectioners' sugar into a large bowl and add marshmallows in batches, tossing to evenly coat. Marshmallows keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature one week.
Recipe adapted from Gourmet, December 1998