Last week I bought a sugar thermometer. I have reached that point in the three-month hiatus from university where the productivity of unemployment far outstrips that of the workplace. With my internship and waitressing job all done, the witchy hours of afternoon stretch before me. In the rainy haze of a British summer, cooking is the perfect way to pass the time.
Through patisserie and confectionary, my old school chemistry lessons come back to haunt me. The careful monitoring of temperature, the balance of acids and alkali, the precise measurement of ingredients defy an improvisatory approach. A lack of respect for these factors heralds imperfection: my éclairs have failed to rise; cakes have had too mealy a texture and truffles have refused that spit-polished gleam when tempering has gone awry.
But Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall promised me that marshmallows were easy enough for a child to make. And now I bask in the consummate glow of the successful home-confectioner.
There was the invitation to a friend’s birthday beach barbeque. With my not-insignificant lack of funds to contend with, marshmallows for the bonfire seemed the perfect contribution.
The new thermometer fogged slightly as I tucked it into the gluey folds of the syrup, the viscous, hot-sweet smell underlying everything. With one eye, I watched the temperature gauge climb to meet the arrow, which indicated the ‘hard ball’ stage at 222 ̊C, with the other focussing on whipping egg whites into tremulous peaks.
As the temperature peaked and the whites stiffened, everything paused. The whirr of the electric beaters, the ticker of the gas stove and the fat, foamy bubble of my syrup – everything was left to steep and cool, as gelatine leaves sat sponged in cold water. The sensation of wringing out gelatine leaves is peculiar, much like wringing out the seaweed I used to use to adorn sandcastle turrets.
I had my brother beat the whites as I added the syrup in a heavy stream, throwing in the gelatine. I’d greased a tin and dusted it with equal parts icing sugar and cornflour and into this was poured the marshmallow mix, a tensile ribbon of velvet, shining, creamy mixture.
They set slowly in a cool corner of the larder, the finished product eased from the tin with a greased knife. The sheet of marshmallow was gummy. Powdering my hands, I began to dice it into fat cubes which I tossed in more icing sugar and folded into greaseproof paper packets. The air was thick with sweet dust, settling over the neat parcels, set to wing their way to various people across southern England. Their first stop, the beach barbeque.
The sun shined that day. I sunburnt my cheekbones and thighs, ate sausages gritty with sand, and got marshmallow in my eyebrows and my hair. Those creamy pockets of sugary delight melted the way shop-bought ones never could. We toasted them in the embers of the bonfire, sucking off the quickly toasted outer layers to reach the mallow heart of soft sweet-goodness. It was like eating liquid meringue.
Later, in the mellow heat of evening, I took a cool bath to scrub away the sand. An uncapped beer and bowl of raspberries were my companions as I lay plotting what adventure would next befall my sugar thermometer and I. Jams, perhaps? Nougat? Regardless, that’s my mother’s headache for another day. In that moment I silently toasted my new toy and split another raspberry in half with my tongue.
Photo sourced from Anne Sandman.