I sure talked a big talk when I claimed to be making Valentine’s Day dinner for Andrew and me. And I bet all of you fell for it hook, line, and sinker. But in reality this year, our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple carries a bit of irony with it. Instead of a quiet just-the-two-of-us-at-home meal, Andrew will be speaking at his alma mater in Boston. What could possibly be more romantic than climate geeks stealing flirty looks, gazing into each other’s eyes, or even possibly meeting their soul mate while listening to my one and only explain the patterns, the trends, the connections between extreme weather and climate change? Exactly – absolutely nothing.
My parents and Andrew’s parents are coming to the talk – they’re forbidden from asking questions. Also, they are to sit in the back, lest their parental instincts take over and they start mouthing “Enunciate! Straighten up!” to Andrew. We’ve got this under control.
Flowers? Who need’em! Just talk dirty-climate to me.
By the time we’ll get back to our hotel room, we’re going to be very much ready for dinner a la room service. No home cooked meals, no fine wine in our best crystal. We might eat dinner in our pajamas while watching the evening news. I’m sure it’s standard room service fare: steak, fish, chicken, nothing extraordinary. There might even be chocolate cake for dessert, if we’re lucky and the hotel doesn’t sell out. But I bet you, room service will have hot cocoa on the menu (or we can at least persuade them to make it), so I’ll be prepared and bring homemade marshmallows along for the ride.
I’ve been a devotee of homemade marshmallows ever since I decided to put one in my soup, incidentally for a Valentine’s Day dinner I cooked for me and a friend. This year, however, I nearly lost my mind making a batches and batches of marshmallows. I’ve given many away and kept testing recipe after recipe, looking for the perfect marshmallow for me. If you ask me what possessed me to go on this strange search, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you. But lately, all I’ve been wanting at the end of dinner is a small, intense hot chocolate, and a perfect billowy marshmallow to go with it. A simple request, and yet…
After testing what seems like nearly a dozen batches, I’ve arrived at one that I really like: David Lebovitz’. It shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise – David knows his sweets and his recipe had amazing, airy texture. But a small detail in his recipe particularly caught my eye, a detail that I think is pretty fantastic and effective: instead of dusting marshmallows in powdered sugar, he asks you to make a mixture of powdered sugar and cornstarch. I suspected (and David confirmed via Twitter) that the latter was to keep the marshmallows dry and from sticking to one another. It was simple and effective, and my marshmallows are happily ensconced between layers of wax paper ready for the next hot chocolate action.
But a marshmallow without hot chocolate is much like a fancy clutch without a fancy dress. Most of hot chocolate is too sweet for my palate, and I wanted something that went heavier on the chocolate than on sugar. After a few batches, I settled on the proportion that was perfect for me. I even tried making a batch with low-fat milk, which proved just as adequate, however, if we’re adding a serious amount of chocolate to milk, who cares about a few percentage points in fat? Certainly not I.
In the end, I’ve arrived at my perfect Valentine’s Day dessert. It might be humble, it might seem like not very much at all – but it’s perfect for me and Andrew as an after dinner treat – especially while we’re in snowy, chilly Boston. Only love (and perhaps a little insanity) makes one pack homemade marshmallows for their spouse just for the sake of a putting a tiny bit of charm into a day of travel and academics.
We might not be eating a home cooked meal, we’ll be ending it with a homemade touch – filled with humor and love.
Hot Chocolate and Marshmallows
Marshmallows adapted, so slightly, from David Lebovitz
David kindly offers instructions for using powdered unflavored gelatin, which is most commonly used in the United States, as well as gelatin sheets, which are what are used elsewhere, and I’ve included both. I found that if I wanted to make a “sheet” of marshmallows and cut them out, it was best to use a quarter-sheet, as opposed to a half-sheet. I also like to “spike” my marshmallows a bit. I find that as they dissolve into my cocoa, I like to get a little residual heat or spice, but by all means, if it’s a plain marshmallow you desire, leave it plain. No need to mess a good thing. While it might sound weird to create a mixture of powdered sugar and corn starch, it’s actually pure genius – the starch keeps the marshmallows from getting soggy and sticking to one another. I also like to keep a tiny batch of the sugar/starch mixture on hand so I can powder the marshmallows right before serving – much like powdering my own nose before a close-up!
If you find your hot chocolate to be a bit too austere, by all means sweeten it to your satisfaction.
Classic Hot Chocolate
1 cup (250 ml) whole or low-fat milk
55 to 60 grams (about 2 ounces) dark chocolate, finely grated (I prefer 70% dark chocolate for this)
Tiny pinch of salt
Pinch of cayenne (optional, if want your hot chocolate with a kick and your marshmallow is plain)
Heat the milk until tiny bubbles appear all around the perimeter of the pot. Stir in hot chocolate and salt, and whisk around to incorporate. Divide between 2 cups and top with a marshmallow. Serve immediately.
2 envelopes (17 grams) powdered gelatin or 17 grams sheet gelatin (8 to 10 sheets)
1/2 cup (125 ml) + 1/3 cup (80 ml) cold water
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1/3 cup (100 grams) light corn syrup
4 large egg whites (1/2 cup, 110 grams), at room temperature
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon smoky chile, ground cardamom, cinnamon, or such (plus more to taste), optional
1 cup (about 140 grams) corn starch or potato starch
1 cup (about 140 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the 1/2 cup (125ml) of cold water to dissolve and soften. If using leaf gelatin, soak the leaves in about 2 cups (500ml) cold water.
2. In a small saucepan with tall sides fitted with a candy thermometer, mix the sugar and corn syrup with 1/3 cup (80ml) of water. Place over medium-to-high heat. The tall sides of the saucepan help with the candy thermometer staying put. (Keep in mind: you will use this saucepan twice, to make the syrup and to melt the gelatin, eliminating the need to wash it between uses).
3. In the clean, dry bowl of a stand mixer, add the egg whites and beat on low speed until frothy. Add a pinch of salt.
4. When the syrup reaches about 210ºF (99ºC), increase the speed of the mixer to high and beat the whites until they are thick and fluffy.
5. When the syrup reaches 245ºF (118ºC), slowly pour the hot syrup into the whites, so the syrup reaches the whites in a thin stream down the side of the bowl (this also helps to cool the syrup down a bit and not “cook” the whites.
6. Scrape the gelatin and water into the pan that you used for the syrup, or put the gelatin sheets and 2 tablespoons of the water into the pan and swirl it to dissolve. (There should still be residual heat left in the pan from making the syrup in it to dissolve it). With the mixer still on high, slowly pour the liquefied gelatin into the whites. Add the vanilla extract or paste, and a spice of your choosing, and continue to whip for 5 minutes, or until the mixture is feels completely cool when you touch the outside of the bowl.
7. Dust a quarter-sheet baking pan evenly and completely with a very generous layer of the marshmallow mixture. (I use a small fine mesh strainer to do this and I do it by placing my baking pan into an empty kitchen sink, so the mess is easier to clean up.) Make sure there are absolutely no bare spots.
8. Use an offset spatula to spread the marshmallows in a layer on the pan. Allow to dry for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, uncovered.
9. Place about 1 cup (140 grams) of the Marshmallow Mix into a large bowl. Dust the top of the marshmallows with some of the remaining marshmallow mix (again, I like to do this in a kitchen sink to minimize cleanup). Using a pizza cutter or scissors (dusted as well with the marshmallow mixture), cut the marshmallows into any size or shape pieces you like, and toss the marshmallows in the marshmallow mix. Shake the marshmallows vigorously in a wire strainer to remove the excess powder and transfer to a container lined with wax paper.
Storage: The marshmallows can be made up to one week in advance, and stored in an airtight container.
Makes 25 to 50 marshmallows, depending on size.