History claims marshmallows have been with us at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, and originated in Egypt. The first marshmallow candies were made using the mallow plant, Althaea officinalis, which grows wild in marshy areas. (Althaea officinalis grows in USDA Zones 3a to 9b, mostly in the eastern United States, in sun to partial shade.) Mallows are in the same family (Malvaceae) as Rose of Sharon and Hollyhocks.

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Mallow plant
Mallow flower

The mallow plant contains a mucilaginous (thick, sticky, jelly-like) sap in the roots, which was extracted and mixed with honey. It was said this delicacy was so special it was reserved for the gods and royalty. It certainly would have been a high-calorie snack that would both keep and travel well.

By the 1800s, doctors prepared a medicinal mallow candy used for soothing sore throats. The recipe called for extracting the mallow sap, cooking it with egg whites and sugar, then whipping it into a meringue. After it cooled and hardened, it became a sweet, soothing lozenge. As manufacturing processes improved, and alternatives to the mallow were found, the candy no longer contained the healing properties for coughs and healing wounds.

The substitution for mallow sap was gelatin, which finally gave marshmallows a stable form. After World War II, marshmallow production was revolutionized by the advent of extruding the mixture in long tube shapes, which were then sliced into the bite-sized pieced still made today. However, today’s marshmallows have one more significant improvement: the process of infusing air into the mixture, which was developed soon after extruding began, and this “jet-puffed” process gives a lighter and fluffier texture to marshmallows.

The basic ingredients in marshmallows today are sugar or corn syrup, gelatin or gum Arabic, corn starch and flavoring, plus they are available in many diverse forms. In addition to the ubiquitious large white marshmallows, there are mini-marshmallows, pastel marshmallows and marshmallow crème. There are marshmallow “peeps” seen at Easter, and now marshmallow shapes are available for almost any holiday.

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Mini marshmallows on cocoa
Marshmallow "peeps"
Marsgmallow hearts

A s’more is a traditional campfire treat made by roasting marshmallows over an open fire, and putting the hot, gooey marshmallow between 2 graham crackers on a slice of chocolate (usually a Hershey bar). It is unknown when S’mores first appeared, but the first '"Official S'more Recipe" was in the Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, Girl Scouts of the USA, 1927[2]

Roasting marshmallows

Marshmallows are available around the world. I have read that only three companies manufacture them now but I could not find out who they are, except for SB Global Foods, Inc. who owns the company that makes Campfire Marshmallows (Doumak, Inc.). In 1955, there were over 30 marshmallow manufacturers in the United States alone and Americans eat 95 million pounds annually.

Making tasty homemade marshmallows is easy, and recipes (including one for pink fluffy hearts) follow.

The historical and medicinal marshmallow information and evolution above is largely from Campfire Marshmallows (Doumak, Inc., SB Global Foods, Inc.) although the same information appears on many sites. http://www.campfiremarshmallows.com/history-of-marshmallows.asp
[1] http://www.geocities.com/suarezgfam/SmoresHistory.html

Photo Credits:
Thanks to Poppysue for use of her Althaea photos from PlantFiles
S’more Image by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Smore.jpg
Marshmallow Easter Chicks, istockphoto.com, # 4669095, © Laura Clay-Ballard, Used by Permission
Valentine marshmallow, istockphoto.com, # 5076174, © Nhuan Nguyen, Used by Permission
Hot chocolate, istockphoto.com, # 1006072, © Mark Hayes, Used by Permission
Roasting marshmallow, istockohoto.com, #1976123, © Johann Helgason, Used by Permission
Marshmallow on a twig, istockohoto.com, #182269, © Reynir Hauksson, Used by Permission

There is a very cool cookbook called Better than Store Bought, now out of print but sometimes available in used book stores and libraries. It contains the following recipe for making your own marshmallows:

* 1/4 cup cornstarch
* 1/3 cup confectioners sugar
* 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
* 1/3 cup water
* 2/3 cup granulated sugar
* 1/2 cup light corn syrup
* Pinch of salt
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Sift the cornstarch and confectioners sugar into a bowl. Lightly grease an 8x8-inch square baking pan and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch-and-sugar mixture into it. Tilt the pan to coat the sides and the bottom. Leave any excess in the pan.
2. Sprinkle the gelatin into the water in a small saucepan and let soak for five minutes. Add the granulated sugar and stir over low heat until the gelatin and sugar dissolve.
3. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, combine the gelatin mixture, corn syrup, salt and vanilla and beat for 15 minutes on high speed, until peaks form.
4. Spread the fluffy mixture in the prepared pan and smooth the top. Leave for two hours or until set.
5. With a wet knife, cut the marshmallow mixture into quarters and loosen around the edges. Sprinkle the remaining cornstarch-and-sugar mixture on a baking sheet and invert the marshmallow blocks onto it. Cut each quarter into nine pieces and roll each one in the starch and sugar.
6. Place the marshmallows on a cake rack covered with paper towels and let them stand over night to dry the surface slightly. Store airtight; the marshmallows will keep for a month.

Valentine Marshmallow Hearts
* 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
* 1 1/4 cups water
* 2 cups sugar
* dash of salt
* oil of peppermint or wintergreen
* food coloring
* confectioners sugar

Soak gelatin in 1/2 cup of cold water for 5 minutes. Cook sugar and 3/4 cup water in saucepan until it threads, pour onto dissolved gelatin, let stand until partially cooled. Add salt and, if desired, a few drops of oil of peppermint or wintergreen and a little red food coloring. Beat until light and thick. Pour into pan thickly dusted with confectioners sugar and put in a cool place to set. Turn out, cut into hearts for Valentine’s Day, and roll in confectioners sugar.

Vegetarian Marshmallows
When eaten at room temperature, these marshmallows taste almost exactly like regular marshmallows. When heated over a campfire, they taste decisively better than regular marshmallows, but do not hold together quite so well.

Gelatin Mix Ingredients:
3 tablespoons vegetarian “gelatin”
1/2 cup water
Syrup Ingredients:
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt

Other Ingredients:
2 tablespoons vanilla extract

Other Stuff You'll Need:
medium-sized mixing bowl
heavy pot
pan with approximately 50-60 sq inches of area
electric mixer
candy thermometer

FAQ: Why are regular marshmallows not vegetarian?
Regular marshmallows contain gelatin, which is composed of heavily processed animal parts.

Place the Gelatin mix ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl. These need to just sit for an hour. While you're waiting, dust the pan with cornstarch. After around half an hour, begin preparing the syrup.

Add the syrup ingredients into a heavy pot, and stir over low heat. Once everything has dissolved, increase to high heat. When it begins boiling, cover for 3 minutes to allow any crystals which have formed to be washed down from the sides of the pot. Be careful not to let it boil over.

Remove the cover and insert the candy thermometer. Continue boiling on high heat, unstirred and uncovered, until the mixture reaches 244° F. This will take several minutes. Overcooking makes the marshmallows tough.

Remove the mixture from heat and pour slowly over the gelatin, beating constantly with the electric mixer. Continue to beat about 15 minutes after all the syrup has been added. While beating, when the mixture is thick but still smooth, add the vanilla extract.

Put the mixture into the pan that has been lightly dusted with cornstarch. Dust the top with cornstarch and set aside for around 12 hours.

When it has dried, remove it from the pan and cut into squares with scissors dusted with cornstarch. Dust the sides of the marshmallows with cornstarch, so that they don't stick together. Store in a closed tin.