The next time you reach for that sweet, chewy marshmallow to roast over the grill or campfire, you may want to learn that the gooey treat we know and love actually got its start from a plant: Althaea officinalis, which was believed to have medicinal properties. In fact Althaea, from althos, means to heal in Greek.
Though today’s favorite confection is made by combining items that include sugar, water, corn syrup, gelatin, dextrose, and vanilla flavoring, in ancient Egypt the plant’s root was used as a cure for sore throats. Greek physician Hippocrates reportedly used part of the plant to treat wounds, and the Roman poet Horace claimed it had laxative properties. During the Renaissance, Althaea could be found as the basis for treating stomach problems, sore throats, gonorrhea, infections of the mouth, and more.
In the 19th Century, doctors extracted juices from the plant’s root and cooked them with egg whites and sugar, after which the mixture was whipped to form a kind of meringue and hardened to produce a medicinal candy for children’s sore throats. Today, practitioners of herbal therapeutic pharmacology often use Althaea officinalis in various forms to soothe inflamed tissues of the digestive tract and to address lung congestion, dry coughs, ulcers, and urinary tract infections. Who knew the ubiquitous marshmallow–in its fundamental form–could be so potent and powerful!
Where dessert is concerned, the ancient Egyptians were known to extract the plant’s sap and mix it with honey and nuts to make coveted sweets. And among the marshmallow’s first candy-like incarnations was a practice in 19th Century France where the sap was whipped and sweetened, the results close to a modern marshmallow. Because the process was time-consuming and extremely labor-intensive, however, French manufacturers began to replicate the chewy sap by using egg whites or gelatin with modified corn starch to form the base–much as we know it today.
Roasted over the campfire or grill, mashed into s’mores, sticky star of Rice Krispies treats and Rocky Road ice cream, spread with peanut butter (m-m-m-m — Fluffernutters!), melting in hot cocoa or rolled in chocolate (or just run out and buy some Mallomars–made extra famous by last few scenes of the movie “When Harry Met Sally”), the versatile marshmallow in one form or another has been pleasing children and adults since ancient times. Try these recipes for a sweet twist on this age-old candy–and cure!
Make Your Own Marshmallows
1 cup confectioners’ sugar for dusting
2 cups white sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 1/4 cups water, divided
4 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dust a 9×9-inch square dish generously with confectioners’ sugar. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together white sugar, corn syrup, and 3/4 cup water. Heat to 250 to 265 degrees (use a candy thermometer), or until a small amount of syrup dropped into cold water forms a rigid ball.
While syrup is heating, place remaining water in a metal bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the surface. Place bowl over simmering water until gelatin has dissolved completely. Keep in a warm place until syrup has come to temperature. Remove syrup from heat and whisk gelatin mixture into hot syrup. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whip egg whites to soft peaks. Continue to beat, pouring syrup mixture into egg whites in a thin stream, until the egg whites are very stiff. Stir in vanilla. Spread evenly in prepared pan and let rest 8 hours or overnight before cutting.
Marshmallow Creme Fruit Dip
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 cup sour cream
I jar marshmallow creme (7 to 8 ounces)
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Assorted fresh fruit slices for dipping
Process in blender until smooth. Refrigerate at least one hour. Serve with chilled, sliced fruit with colored toothpicks for added fun.
Marshmallow Peanut Bars
4 tablespoons butter
3 cups mini marshmallows
1/2 cup brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/2 cups chopped unsalted peanuts
Melt butter over low heat. Add marshmallows, brown sugar, and salt. Cook, stirring constantly until syrupy. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Stir in peanuts. Stir until well coated. Spread in greased 8-X- 8 pan. Let cool but great while still a little warm.