The little things are really big things.
I’m not sure that this would have been the takeaway for the onlooker, peeking over my shoulder at Rapha Rides last weekend, but it was exactly what came to mind when I finally settled into my seat on the airplane, headed home from a whirlwind weekend of culture, cuisine and cycling in San Francisco.
The crown jewel of the weekend was camping out in Napa in the middle of a redwood forest, cooking up a storm with my dear friend, the amazing Chef Chris Cosentino. We rumbled our vehicles up into the woods, unloaded the ingredients we needed to make a feast for 70 of our new best friends. A whole lamb, pounds upon pounds of carrots for grilling, dates for charring, bags of kale for massaging with lemon and olive oil, crisp radishes, seeds and nuts to toast, grains to steam, spiced yogurt to swipe over just about anything. And, of course, all the accouterments to make smores including a case of these incredible chocolate bars, and – you guessed it – a quadruple batch of Homemade (Vegan!) Double Vanilla Bean Marshmallows for campfires. Because having vegan marshmallows might seem like a little thing, but for some, it’s a big thing. And having little homemade marshmallows really is a big thing for everyone.
So, yeah. I’m sure that onlooker saw this experience as one, massive, blur of an unforgettable party. Big beautiful bike rides, feasts of the senses laid out in broad landscapes, on the tables and before them on the bike. Bursts of bubbling laughter rolling out the doors and windows of the clubhouse into the night. And, they would be right. It is all that. (And we’ll do it all again in New York City next weekend!) But without those hundred little trips up and down stairs to the stock room to get more disposable forks, little quick checks on the coolers before bed to be sure that the rosé stays cold all night. This big thing just wouldn’t be the same. Not for me. And not for our guests.
So, I do things like carry around little almond butter packets in my jeans and backpack (because I’ll forget to eat lunch until its too late.) Like charging up that little spare battery for my iPhone charged so when I fall asleep in the woods without an outlet nearby, I can wake up knowing that I can read my to-do list. I bake one more little batch cookies so I can share a couple with my cab drivers (because they’re kind enough to shuttle you about the city with the smells of 200 cookies wafting about their vehicle, and they didn’t even jump you.) I pick flowers for our prep tables, popped up in the forest. And pick up the little Coca-Cola cans and the good sea salt to make popcorn when our riders come in from a long day.
I could just have bought a crudites plate from the grocery store, but instead Chris and I hand prepared each radish and carrot.
I could just buy granola from a box or in bulk and stick it in a glass jar for that hipster effect, but homemade granola will be THAT MUCH BETTER.
The next time you head out into the woods to sleep under the stars (or just head into the neighbors’ backyard to build a fire and enjoy it,) you could pick up a big bag of jet-puffed marshmallows. But, you could also make them yourself. Unlike those pre-bagged marshmallows, these use agar to set up (you could substitute gelatin – see the instructions below) which makes them vegan and vegetarian. Using the agar takes a bit more time, but not enough to scare you away.
You probably know already that something handmade makes it special, but also know that making marshmallows is FUN. That said, it is a process, and one that isn’t for the faint of heart or the unfocused; you’ll need to pay close attention to temperatures, time and equipment to make them work. And, as it turns out, it’s a pretty great summer project because, even though you are going to make molten sugar, you don’t need to turn on the oven. Uneaten marshmallows will stay in an airtight container for you to tote about for several weeks of camping and adventuring.
Read the instructions below carefully, and set this one aside for a day when you’re looking for a cooking project to fall into. Gather your equipment and get to it. Once you nail these once, you – too will be in love with the idea of doing a few little things to make a big thing all the bigger.
Oh! And one more thing – the marshmallow dust recipe calls for vanilla powder which you can find in well stocked grocers and specialty stores OR at this favorite NYC outpost.
- 3 tablespoons of agar-agar powder or unflavored gelatin powder (typically 3 packets)
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
- 1 tsp all-spice
- 2 vanilla beans split, seeds scraped
- FOR THE MARSHMALLOWS
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 1/4 cup sugar cane syrup (see note + link above) or corn syrup
- a pinch of sea salt
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp vanilla powder
- SPECIAL EQUIPMENT
- small whisk
- a stand mixer OR large, deep bowl + hand mixer
- 9x13 baking pan or other flat container
- parchment paper
- cooking spray (I like coconut oil)
- 4-quart saucepan (slightly larger or smaller is ok)
- Pastry brush
- Candy thermometer, one that can clip to the side of the sauce pan
- Stiff spatula or spoon(as opposed to a rubbery, flexible one to be used for scraping)
- Sharp knife or pizza wheel
- First, prepare your pans and equipment: spray the baking pan with cooking spray, then line with parchment paper. Spray the parchment paper with oil. Set it near your stand mixer, along with the kitchen towel and spatula. Lightly spray the spatula with a bit of coconut oil, spreading it over the blade with your fingers. Fit the stand mixer with the whisk attachment (or fit your hand mixer with its whisks.)
- Bloom the agar-agar or gelatin: Measure the powdered agar-agar or gelatin into the bowl of the stand mixer (if you're using a hand mixer instead - as I did - you'll want to measure the powder into the bowl that you'll ultimately mix the marshmallows in). Combine 1/2 cup cold water, the vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds and spices in a small bowl, then pour this over the powder while whisking gently with a fork or small whisk. Continue stirring until the powder reaches the consistency of apple sauce and there are no more large lumps. If you're using agar-agar, you won't see quite the same applesaucy-texture. No worries. Let agar-agar sit for one full hour blooming before you progress to the next step. If you're using gelatin, continue...
- Combine the ingredients for the syrup: Pour 3/4 cup water into the 4-quart saucepan. Pour the sugar, cane sugar syrup or corn syrup, and salt on top. Do not stir.
- Bring the sugar syrup to a boil: Clip the candy thermometer to the side of the pan and place the pan over medium-high heat and bring it to a full, rapid boil — all of the liquid should be boiling. As the mixture is coming to bowl, frequently dip the pastry brush in the water and use it to brush down the sides of the pot. This prevents sugar crystals from falling into the liquid, which can cause the syrup to crystallize.
- Do not stir the sugar once it has come to a boil or it may crystallize.
- Boil the syrup to 245°F. Once this temperature has been reached, take the pan immediately off the heat and remove the thermometer with a towel (it will be HOT!) Now, its showtime!
- Whisk the hot syrup into the gelatin: If you're using a hand mixer, pick it up with one hand while pouring the sugar syrup over the gelatin with the other. Your pot is likely heavy so you might also want to recruit some help to do this. Carefully pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl with the mixer whisking at medium speed, working very hard to avoid pouring it onto the whisk of the mixer (which will cause hot sugar to splatter all over the kitchen. NOT fun.) The mixture will foam up — no worries, just go slowly and carefully.
- Increase speed of the mixer to high and continue beating: Crank up the speed to HIGH. If you're using a stand mixer, you can place a clean towel over (or the splashguard) over the mixer to prevent splatters. You're going to whip the marshmallows for a total of 10 minutes, at least. I go 12 minutes, just to be sure! You'll literally be able to watch your marshmallows become....mallows. The liquid will go from clear and frothy to opaque (around 3-5 minutes in) and then will start to increase in volume (about 7 minutes in.) From this point on, your marshmallows will gain in volume, and become thicker, and will look like a thicker, glossier version of vanilla soft serve ice cream.
- Immediately transfer to the baking pan: Once your 12 minutes is up, turn the speed of the mixer down to medium speed, then low speed to spin off any mallow stuck to the whisks. Take your coconut oil sprayed spatula and scrape the marshmallow mixture into the prepared pan. This stuff is very thick and sticky, so don’t worry about getting every last bit out of the bowl. Just get as much as you can. Then, spray your hands lightly with coconut oil and VERY GENTLY smooth out the top of the marshmallow so its as even as possible.
- Let the marshmallows set for 6 to 24 hours: Let the mixture sit uncovered and at room temperature for 6 to 24 hours to set and "cure."
- Prepare the marshmallow coating: Combine the powdered sugar, cornstarch and spices in a bowl. Stir them so that the powdered mixture starts to be flecked ever so little with the spices. Add more if need be (or to taste.)
- Remove the marshmallows from the pan: Sprinkle the top of the cured marshmallows with some of the powdered sugar mix and smooth it with your hand. Flip the block of marshmallows out onto your work surface. Peel the parchment away and sprinkle the exposed side with sugar mixture as well. I like to then flip the marshmallow back onto the parchment to cut (it seems to contain the powdered sugar mess better that way!)
- Cut and coat the marshmallows: Using a sharp knife or pizza wheel, cut the marshmallows into squares. I slice strips off, rub a bit of powdered sugar on the sides of each strip and then cut the strips into smaller marshmallows. As you cut them, toss each mallow into the bowl of coating sugar and toss it to coat completely. Then fish them out with a whisk or fork.
- Store the marshmallows: Marshmallows will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for several weeks. Leftover marshmallow coating can be stored in a sealed container indefinitely.