The Making of Marshmallows & Memories – Family Holiday Traditions
By Karyn Miller
Reprint from October 2013
The scents of the cool fall air always spark different emotions and trigger memories for me. As a child, once the Trick-or-Treat candy was consumed (or otherwise mysteriously disposed of), my family got to work on the next series of events. Football, Homecoming, a few fall birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day inspired us and gave us all something pleasing to anticipate.
My father owned and managed retail businesses during my youth. He worked six days a week as long as I can remember, holidays being the rare exception. Mom taught high school homemaking and was a foodie before the word existed. While she managed to deliver some amazing meals for us despite the limited help from her industrious husband and her three indolent children, her magic really sparkled when the cool weather and fall fog rolled into town. From homemade hot chocolate to the best pralines ever, from candied orange peel (still not my favorite) to sand tarts and divinity, Mom’s greatest gifts flowed forth from kitchen. For our family, holiday traditions focused on these sweets and other favorite foods.
My daughter and I rely happily and heavily on those holiday traditions from my mother’s kitchen. With the first breath of chilly air, we make homemade hot chocolate just like we did when I was a kid – that perfect combination of chocolate with the tiniest pinch of salt and spice. After I pour it into mugs, my daughter Molly mounds marshmallows so high that it takes half an hour to get to the beverage. By the time the marshmallows are gone, she and I are halfway through another longstanding family holiday tradition, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” Never a drop of hot cocoa remains in either of our cups by the end of the show.
One of our newer traditions is to make our own marshmallows – not for the ordinary cold night hot chocolate, but as holiday gifts for teachers and friends, and of course, as a gift to ourselves. The recipe isn’t difficult, but it is time-consuming and messy. And worth every bit of waiting, togetherness, powdered sugar, and fun. That time together is the stuff that holidays are made of, the stuff I remember as a kid with my brother and sister.
Thanks to a mother who was and is a fabulous cook, both of my siblings and I love cooking and eating good food, bantering and being silly with each other; so, what many might view as an onerous tasks in the kitchen I see as luxurious indulgences when we truly take the time to create good food and good memories. I savor the hours “slaving” in the kitchen, even if I complain about how little time we have to sleep, to relax, and to relish the season. Despite my family’s mutual admiration of all things food and all things cooking, our holiday season typically starts with the same friendly sibling argument:
“What are we doing for Thanksgiving this year?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’m having for dinner tonight.”
“How about turkey?”
“I don’t want turkey this year.”
“How about ham?”
“I don’t like ham.”
“Fine. I’ll ask Gary.”
“Gary, are you and Beth in town for Thanksgiving this year?”
“I think so. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Beth.”
Aaaaarghhhh! Thus the holiday tradition in the Miller family begins. Eventually my sister and I will congregate over a glass of wine and talk about our plans through the season. We ponder over recipes, menus, new and old favorites. Finally we emerge with our Thanksgiving dinner plan, typically a mix of a new twist on a turkey we likely found in Bon Appetite, our grandmother’s traditional Southern Dressing, Gary’s Potatoes Dauphin, Beth’s rolls, something green (changes every year), a variety of pies, and of course, Mom’s pralines. Perhaps we should just keep that same menu every year, but then we would lose the traditional pre-holiday argument I have come to anticipate and enjoy.
I “interviewed” my daughter before writing this article to find out what she considers her favorite family holiday traditions to be. Without any prompting she said, “Grandma’s pralines. Grandma makes the best pralines ever.” Next she mentioned hot chocolate and homemade marshmallows. She even mentioned how her Aunt Caryl and I have to wrangle over our holiday dinners and gatherings.
She mentioned how she loves for our whole family to get together, usually after New Year’s, to have our official family Christmas where each family member gets to open his or her gifts one by one for all to see. I don’t know why, but it surprised me that Molly defined her holiday traditions and memories so similarly to the way I define mine. I realized we all have our own traditions – an imperfectly perfect blend of all the traditions that have graced and cursed us through the years. I can only hope she is so lucky with her own family someday.
Molly and Karyn’s traditional homemade marshmallow recipe for gift-giving and hot cocoa.
4 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 ½ c water
2 ½ c white sugar
½ c brown sugar
1 ¼ c light corn syrup
¼ t salt
½ t cinnamon
2 t vanilla extract
½ c confectioners’ sugar
½ c cornstarch
Combine confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Set aside.
Line a large jellyroll pan with lightweight foil. Spray with vegetable spray and dust pan lightly with sugar-cornstarch mixture. Set pan aside.
In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, soften gelatin with ¾ c water.
Place the white and brown sugars, corn syrup, salt, cinnamon, and ¾ c water in a heavy saucepan. Stir to mix well. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat until the syrup reaches the soft-ball stage (234-240°F). After it reaches the soft-ball stage, remove pan from heat and add vanilla. The mixture will be dark at this stage.
With the whisk attachment and the mixer at high speed, slowly pour the hot syrup mixture into the gelatin until the mixture is very stiff. This takes about 15 minutes. The mixture will fluff up and turn almost white.
Pour the mixture into the foil-lined pan and smooth the top with a well-oiled spatula. Allow the mixture to sit, uncovered, at room temperature for several hours, overnight it usually best.
Light sprinkle some of the cornstarch-sugar mixture over a cutting surface. Turn the stiffened marshmallow mixture out onto the cutting surface. Dip a slightly oiled cookie cutter into the remaining cornstarch-sugar mixture, and cut the marshmallows into shapes. Drop freshly-cut marshmallows into cornstarch mixture, then store in an airtight container.
These make beautiful homemade gifts, especially when combined with a cup of homemade cocoa mix and a peppermint stick in a mug.
Variations: Chocolate marshmallows, chocolate-cayenne, peppermint marshmallows, coconut marshmallows. Call me for more ideas or for specific recipes for these. Enjoy.