Love Peeps? Make your own marshmallow treats

Gretchen McKay's homemade marshmallows.
Lake Fong/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/SHNS
Story by Gretchen McKay
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/SHNS)
Sat, Apr 16, 2011
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Chris Momberger’s analytical mind is perfectly suited to his job as a performance engineer. It’s also worked magic with marshmallows.

Five years ago, he started making the sugary treats to take to potlucks and parties, first by his lonesome -- he needed a creative outlet to balance all that corporate problem-solving -- and then with the help of girlfriend Debbie Steinberg, who at the time was working on a degree in landscape architecture from Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

The pair proved so good at experimenting with sugar and gelatin that they decided to go pro as the Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory (pittsburghmarshmallowfactory.com).

Momberger, 37, says, “Marshmallows strike a very primal nerve with people,” in large part because no one ever eats them when they’re having a bad time: you’re either stirring a handful of jet-puffed minis into a cup of hot chocolate or roasting the big ones over an open campfire for s’mores.

The fluffy white confection also is the quintessential Easter treat. What kid (or adult) can resist a sugar-coated Peep?

The bright-yellow marshmallow candies in the shape of chicks (and bunnies) are the most iconic, although the novelty eats, which first showed up in Easter baskets in 1953, also now come in bright green, blue, pink, orange and lavender, as well as in a variety of flavors such as chocolate mousse and mint.

The Just Born candy company of Bethlehem, Pa., churns out 4.2 million per day -- enough in one year to circle Earth twice. Just Born also makes a sugar-free marshmallow Peep sweetened with Splenda. New this year are milk- and dark-chocolate-dipped Peeps and nugget-sized Peepsters.

The company also has branched out to other holidays, with marshmallow candy in the shape of hearts for Valentine’s Day, jack-o-lanterns for Halloween and Christmas trees, snowmen and reindeer for Christmas.

A relative drop in the bucket are the 750 or so 1-1/2-inch squares Momberger and Steinberg make each week in a rented commercial kitchen in Brackenridge, Pa. But they’re also way more gourmet, crafted in small batches by hand, with flavors that most of us never could have imagined as kids, and might also have a hard time wrapping our heads around as adults.

They started simply enough, with vanilla and chocolate. Then Steinberg devised an orange creamsicle marshmallow that knocked everyone’s socks off, and, “That’s the moment I realized she had surpassed me in marshmallow creativity,” says Momberger. “And the flavors kept coming.”

“We’re always looking for better ways and new ideas,” agrees Steinberg, 32.

All of their marshmallows are made with as many local natural ingredients as possible.

The aerated candy actually has a long history, first made by ancient Egyptians, who mixed honey with the root sap of the marsh mallow plant and baked them into cakes. It was a sweet goodie limited to royalty and remained so for 4,000 years; until they were mass produced in the early 1900s, most common folk got a taste only when a physician hid a pill inside one to mask the tablet’s bitter taste.

Today, marshmallows are made with sugar and corn syrup beaten until fluffy with the help of gelatin. Stick with basic vanilla, and the recipe is simple enough that even a beginning cook can master a decent marshmallow fluff for icing cakes and slathering between whoopie pies. Homemade Easter treats are also surprisingly easy and taste so much fresher and softer than the ones you find on store shelves.

HOMEMADE MARSHMALLOW CHICKS AND BUNNIES

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Commercial sanding sugar can be expensive, so make your own by adding food coloring to granulated sugar and mixing well with your fingers. (I used McCormick’s Neon! colors.) Be sure to spread the warm marshmallow mixture as smoothly as possible on a baking sheet. I didn’t, and the treats were lumpy.

-- Gretchen McKay

  • Vegetable oil cooking spray
  • 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 envelopes (1/2 ounce each) gelatin (1 tablespoon plus 1-1/2 teaspoons)
  • 2/3 cup cold water, plus 1/2 cup room-temperature water
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Fine colored sanding sugar, for sprinkling and rolling

Coat a 9-1/2-by-13-inch rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, tapping out excess. Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in the bowl of a mixer. Let stand for 5 minutes to soften.

Meanwhile, heat granulated sugar and room-temperature water in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Wash down sides of pan with a wet pastry brush. Cook until syrup reaches 238 degrees on a candy thermometer. Stir syrup into softened gelatin, and keep stirring for a few minutes to cool. Whisk on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, 8 to 10 minutes. Whisk in vanilla. Spread mixture into baking sheet using an offset spatula; sprinkle with sanding sugar. Let stand 1 hour to set.

Cut out marshmallows using your favorite Easter cookie cutters (wipe cutters clean between each cut), and roll cut sides in sanding sugar to coat.

Marshmallows can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature overnight. Makes about 2 dozen treats, depending on the size of the cutters.

-- marthastewart.com

FRENCH TOAST, PITTSBURGH MARSHMALLOW FACTORY STYLE

Why reach for the maple syrup when a melted marshmallow does the sweet trick? PMF owner Chris Momberger prefers an ooey-gooey bananas foster marshmallow, though any flavor will do.

-- Gretchen McKay

  • 6 to 8 slices thick, hardy bread (use day-old, stale bread for the best result)
  • 1-1/2 cups of half-and-half or milk
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (for frying)
  • 1 pat butter per piece of toast (for baking)
  • 6 to 8 Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory marshmallows (any flavor)

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In a large bowl, add half and half, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Whisk vigorously together. Place bread in a single layer in a 9-by-11-inch pan.

Pour the mixture over the bread and allow it to thoroughly soak (about 5 minutes per side). Flip with a spatula; some breads may be too soft to pick up at this point.

In a large pan or griddle, melt butter over medium to medium-high heat. Fry the bread in the pan or on the griddle for 2 to 3 minutes per side or until golden brown, keeping the heat low.

Place the French toast onto a cooking sheet. Dot with a little butter and place a Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory marshmallow on each slice. Place in oven for about 7 minutes or until the marshmallow melts to a syrup. Enjoy!

Serves 4.

-- Chris Momberger

SWEET PEEPS MACAROONS

  • 12 Peeps Milk- or Dark-Chocolate-Dipped Chicks
  • 3 cups sweetened flaked coconut
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract

Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, stir coconut, sugar, egg whites, salt, vanilla and almond extract until well combined. Refrigerate 1/2 hour.

Drop batter by rounded tablespoons (approximately 1 inch apart) so they are about 2 inches in diameter. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes or until slightly golden.

Cool 1 to 3 minutes on cookie trays. Remove with a spatula and transfer to wire rack. Top each with a chocolate Peep.

Makes 12 macaroons.

-- Just Born (marshmallowpeeps.com)

COCONUT CAKE WITH LEMON CURD AND MARSHMALLOW FROSTING

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Flaked coconut and a fluffy marshmallow frosting give this buttermilk layer cake a wonderful texture and bright, Eastery look.

Be careful not to overmix the batter or the cake will end up dry instead of moist. The original recipe called for a ginger-scented lime curd between the layers, but I substituted a traditional lemon curd because I knew I’d want to spread the leftovers on toast and pancakes. I also stopped at three layers because four was just too darn tall.

-- Gretchen McKay

For the cake:

  • 1-1/2 cups lemon curd (see recipe)
  • 5 cups sifted cake flour (sifted, then measured)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 8 large eggs
  • 2 cups buttermilk, room temperature

For the frosting:

  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 7-ounce package sweetened flaked coconut (about 3 cups)

To make cake, position 1 rack in top third and 1 rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter 4 9-inch cake pans with 1-1/2-inch-high sides. Line bottoms of pans with parchment-paper rounds. Butter parchment; dust with flour. Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in another large bowl until smooth. Gradually add sugar and beat until very well blended, about 5 minutes. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, scraping down sides of bowl before each addition. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with buttermilk in 2 additions. Divide batter equally among prepared cake pans.

Place 2 cake pans on top rack of oven and 2 pans on bottom rack; bake until golden and tester inserted into cake centers comes out clean, reversing pans after 15 minutes, about 30 minutes total. Cool cakes in pans on racks 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks; peel off parchment. Turn cakes right side up on racks; cook cakes completely.

Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread 1/3 of lemon curd (about 1/2 cup) over, leaving 1/2-inch plain border around the cake. Repeat procedure with 2 more layers. Let each layer stand 10 minutes. Stack layers, curd side up. Top with 4th layer. Let cake stand at room temperature while preparing frosting. Insert 3 or 4 bamboo skewers into cake to hold stacked layers in place while frosting. (Cake can be prepared 1 day ahead.)

For frosting, whisk sugar, egg whites, 1/3 cup water, light corn syrup and cream of tartar in a large metal bowl to blend. Set bowl over saucepan of barely simmering water. (Be careful not to let bottom of bowl touch water.) Using handheld electric mixer, beat on medium speed until mixture resembles soft marshmallow fluff, about 4 minutes. Increase mixer speed to high and beat until mixture is very thick, about 3 minutes longer. Remove bowl from over simmering water. Add vanilla extract and continue beating until marshmallow frosting is completely cool, about 5 minutes longer.

Spread frosting thinly over top and sides of cake. Remove skewers. Press flaked coconut into frosting on top and sides of cake. Cover with cake dome and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours before serving.

Serves 10 to 12.

-- Adapted from Epicurious.com

LEMON CURD

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

This tart-sweet custardlike spread is a traditional topping for scones, but it tastes just as yummy on cakes, cookies and toast. I’ve also slathered it, warm from the pot, on French toast. You won’t be sorry if you double the recipe.

-- Gretchen McKay

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons butter, cubed

Combine eggs, sugar, zest and juice in a heat-proof bowl that fits over a saucepan. Whisk until smooth and slightly pale.

Place bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and stir with a whisk. As mixture warms, add butter, a bit at a time, and continue stirring. Whisk mixture over the heat until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes, taking care not to let it boil. Cool and spoon into a glass jar or bowl, and cover with plastic wrap so a skin does not form. Will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1-1/2 cups.

-- “Baking” by James Peterson (Ten Speed, 2009, $40)

HOMEMADE MARSHMALLOW FLUFF

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Spread this on bread with peanut butter for a homemade “Fluffernutter” sandwich. You can also stir it into fruit salad, beat it with egg whites for a lighter-than-air meringue or slather it between chocolate cookies.

-- Gretchen McKay

  • 3/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 large egg whites, room temperature

In a small saucepan, combine corn syrup and sugar with 1/4 cup water. Bring to boil over high heat, and clip on a candy thermometer. Continue to boil, occasionally brushing the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent stray granules of sugar from crystallizing.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip egg whites until medium peaks form. When the syrup reaches 238 degrees, after about 7 minutes, remove from heat. With mixer running at medium speed, very slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl of egg whites in a steady stream, beating until syrup is fully incorporated and sauce is shiny and fluffy.

Makes 2 cups.

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