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Marshmallows From Scratch: A Simple, Sticky How-To

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A few years ago, Jennifer Reese lost her job, so she decided it was the perfect time to save money by undertaking "all those exciting Little House on the Prairie cooking jobs" she'd been curious to try. Reese was an ambitious cook, and her enthusiasm knew no bounds: She wasn't just baking bread or grinding peanut butter. She fried potato chips, made Pop-Tarts, stretched curds into mozzarella, infused vermouth, fermented kimchee — and, while she was at it, raised her own chickens, turkeys and goats at her home in the San Francisco Bay area.

"But at the same time I was thinking, this is really absurd," Reese tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I'm not going to save money by baking bread or making cheese; this is a romantic fantasy. So while I was doing it, I ran this cost/benefit analysis while I was going along." The result of that analysis is Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, a chronicle of Reese's trial-and-error odyssey to figure out which foods are worth the effort of making yourself, and which foods you should just buy right off the grocery shelf.

With each recipe in the book, Reese includes a "hassle factor" — ranging from "none at all" to "truly a pain in the [BEEP]" to "you will want to bludgeon yourself with your rolling pin about halfway through this project." (You can find recipes for two "worth it to make yourself" foods — hot dog buns and Worcestershire sauce — below.)

Reese attempted to make foods at home that might never occur to you to make from scratch — like marshmallows. "Oh, they just taste so much better. They're just more delicious," Reese says. "They don't turn out to be cheaper ... but they are better." So homemade marshmallows it is. Reese guided Block through the surprisingly simple make-your-own-marshmallow process:

First, the ingredients: granulated sugar, confectioner's sugar, gelatin, vanilla, egg whites, cornstarch, corn syrup — and some store-bought marshmallows, for comparison.

To start out, dissolve gelatin in water in a small saucepan over low heat. (For the full, detailed recipe, scroll down to the bottom of the page)

Then, in a larger saucepan bring granulated sugar, corn syrup and water to a fast boil — it must reach 265 F on the candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, separate two eggs and drop the whites into the mixer. Whisk until they are firm and glossy.

As soon as the sugar syrup hits 265 F, start pouring it slowly and steadily into the egg whites — beating the whole time. Add the gelatin as well, keep beating, and, once the bowl is cool to the touch, whisk in the vanilla.

If it looks floppy, don't panic, Reese advises — just keep beating: "It will eventually come together and become a beautiful cloud — puffy, white, billowing cloud."

Then, pour the sticky, shiny goo onto a 9x13 cookie sheet that has been lightly greased and prepared with a bed of cornstarch and confectioner's sugar. Spread the marshmallow out smoothly, and let it sit overnight.

In the morning, using kitchen shears, cut the marshmallows into 36 squares.

Cut into cubes, they look fantastic, but they're not the Jet-Puffed marshmallow from your childhood. Will they stand up to store-bought? To find out, Block brought her homemade marshmallows to some of the harshest and hungriest food critics around — the staff at All Things Considered.

NPR arts correspondent and frequent guest host Lynn Neary was impressed. "That's really good," she said. "I think it's better than store-bought. I like the texture better. ... [It's] a little creamier. And sweet. Sweet, but not too sweet."

All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel agreed: "That's amazing. It tastes exactly like a marshmallow, except there's no fire around it," he said. "It's terrific! I've never had homemade marshmallows before!"


Recipe: Marshmallows

Like most Americans, I grew up thinking a marshmallow was a stiff, eraserlike confection, nominally edible, used in school construction projects involving toothpicks or dropped in hot chocolate. Neither candy nor cookie, a marshmallow was a gummy droid, entirely artificial and not all that enticing. My kids used to eat them only when there was nothing sweet left in the cupboard except raisins. To concoct a marshmallow at home seemed impossible. And to concoct at home a marshmallow that resembles a Kraft Jet-Puffed may be impossible.

After you have tasted a sugar-white homemade marshmallow you will not care. Homemade marshmallows are fairy food, pillowy, quivering and soft.

Make it or buy it? Make it.

Hassle: Negligible, provided you have a mixer (a hand-held mixer is fine if you're strong and patient) and a candy thermometer. If you don't have a candy thermometer, buy one. Cheap and useful.

Cost comparison: The most basic homemade marshmallow costs 10 cents. Kraft Jet- Puffed marshmallows: 4 cents apiece. On the other hand, high-end marshmallows like the Whole Foods brand: 50 cents.

Makes 36 marshmallows

Three 1/4-ounce packets unflavored gelatin

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

2 egg whites

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

In a tiny saucepan, over low heat, dissolve the gelatin in 7 tablespoons of water. It will be pale beige and viscous. Turn off the heat.

In a larger saucepan, heat the granulated sugar and corn syrup with 1/2 cup water.

Bring to a boil, stirring until dissolved. Let it boil until it registers 265 F on a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a mixer, begin whisking the egg whites. Beat until firm and glossy. As soon as the sugar syrup registers 265 F, begin pouring it in a slow steady stream into the egg whites, beating constantly. Add the gelatin and continue beating. When you start, the hot liquid will slosh around the bowl and you will think it is hopeless; by the time you are done, the mixture will have swollen into a luxuriant white cloud. Whisk until the bowl is cool to the touch.

Whisk in the vanilla.

Lightly grease a rimmed cookie sheet. Mix together the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar and sift half onto the cookie sheet. You want a really generous bed of powder. On top of this, spread the marshmallow and smooth the top. Let sit overnight.

In the morning, cut the marshmallows into 36 pieces with a sharp knife. If they stick, dip the knife in water. (Damp scissors can also help with the job.) Toss the marshmallows in the leftover powder; you want all the exposed sides of the marshmallows to be lightly coated in powder, which will keep them from sticking to each other.

Store in a cookie tin or resealable plastic bag. They keep indefinitely, though they become crustier and less appealing after a week or so.

Excerpted from Make The Bread, Buy The Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch — 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Reese. Published by Free Press.


Hot Dog Buns

One day we had a package of hot dogs to use up, but no buns. I've served naked hot dogs rolling around on a plate before, but no one in my household is very happy when I do. Likewise, I'm never very happy to go to the supermarket. I decided to try out the bun recipe in The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, a cookbook that has seldom steered me wrong. Mixing and kneading the dough took five minutes. I left it to rise for three hours and went about my day.

Shortly before dinner, I shaped the dough into logs, let them rise briefly, and put them in the oven. They were lopsided and lumpish when they emerged, and didn't offer a perfectly tidy cradle for the hot dogs. "People rely on hot dog buns to hold their hot dogs," said Mark, frowning. But once he started eating, even he had to concede that these were superlative hot dog buns, slightly sweet and yeasty, soft and rich.

I found myself reflecting on how bad most hot dog buns are. How we take for granted their badness, how inured we are to their badness. How I always throw away what's left after the last bite of hot dog because the bread has the texture of foam rubber. But hot dog buns don't need to be bad! We were eating these hot dog buns as if they were warm sourdough rolls. Moreover, they were cheaper than buns from the supermarket.

Make it or buy it? If you have time, make it. You can buy delicious bread and adequate bagels, but you cannot buy a good hot dog bun.

Hassle: Slight, though you have to plan ahead

Cost comparison: Homemade: 17 cents a bun. Ball Park buns: 37cents. Sara Lee: 55 cents.

Makes 10 buns

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon instant yeast

Neutral vegetable oil, for greasing

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the milk, butter, egg, flours, sugar, salt, and yeast and knead with the dough hook until you have a smooth dough.

Scoop up the dough, grease the bowl, and return the dough to the bowl. Cover with a clean, damp dish towel and let the dough rise. It will be puffed and ready in about 1 hour, but you can leave it longer.

Gently deflate the dough and divide into 10 pieces. Shape each lump of dough into a petite bun-sized log. Make them as neat as you can, because every flaw in the design will be exaggerated in the finished product.

Place on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet, 1 1/2 inches apart. Drape with the same damp towel. Let rise for 30 minutes. This is dough with Frankenstein inclinations, so don't let the buns rise much longer than 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Bake the buns for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden. The original recipe says to cool the buns, but I would eat them soon. Like, immediately. If you don't eat them immediately, store in a plastic bag at room temperature for up to 5 days. Freeze for longer storage.

Excerpted from Make The Bread, Buy The Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch — 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Reese. Published by Free Press.


Worcestershire Sauce

I'm aware that it sounds obsessive to make your own Worcestershire, a condiment you probably use only occasionally, in minute quantities. But wait until you taste this stuff. It's black and shiny, almost iridescent, with so much umami you'll want to eat it with a spoon. Credit goes to Emeril Lagasse for this knockout recipe.

Make it or buy it? Make it.

Hassle: You babysit the sauce all day, but it's not a needy baby.

Cost comparison: A pint of homemade costs about $8. Lea & Perrins: $9.50

Makes about 1 quart

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

2 serrano chiles, chopped, with seeds

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Two 2-ounce cans anchovies, drained

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 lemon, peel and white pith removed and discarded

2 cups dark corn syrup

1 cup molasses

1 quart distilled white vinegar

1/4 pound fresh horseradish, peeled and grated

In a heavy pot over high heat, combine the oil, onions and chiles. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, pepper, anchovies, cloves, salt, lemon, corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, 2 cups water and the horseradish. Bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture barely coats a wooden spoon, about 6 hours.

Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Store in a bottle, preferably one with a spigot. Keeps in the refrigerator indefinitely.

Excerpted from Make The Bread, Buy The Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch — 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Reese. Published by Free Press.


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