February 14, 2011

Contemplating campfire memories

Guess what? I made graham crackers. Or "crisp honey grahams" as some people call them. So much better than the store bought variety. So much better. But you know what else? I also made marshmallows. Homemade marshmallows. You know what's coming next, right? S'mores, if you're into that sort of thing. Nutella works rather well for it if you're in a pinch and don't have any other chocolate on hand, but I would wager that squares of really good dark chocolate make the best s'more. Nutella can be a tad overwhelming (if you haven't had it, the stuff's pretty sweet) because marshmallows are pretty darn sweet on their own, as they're probably made up of at least 85% sugar. I would imagine that s'mores made with homemade graham crackers and marshmallows are like a gourmet version of campfire memories for some people.

Now that I know how not difficult it is to cook up a batch of marshmallows, I might be tempted to make them more often. They've been on my mind for a while, and I was surprised at the ease of the method. This recipe uses egg whites, but there are some out there without it, if you're not keen on using them. Basically all you need to do is make a sugar syrup with both sugar and honey (or corn syrup), mix it into some water and gelatin, and beat the mixture until it thickens and expands, then pour it into a pan to set. The cutting process involves a lot of powdered sugar, but that's all there is to it. Jet-puffed marshmallows are a thing of the past. When thinking about them now, stale is the only word that comes to mind. Homemade marshmallows are fluffy, chewy, and far from tasting stale.

To tell you the truth, I've never been much of a s'more eater, although the prospect of making s'mores was always appealing. On family camping trips as kids, my brothers and I got the most fun out of roasting the marshmallows, rotating them carefully over the campfire on sticks to get a perfectly golden edge all around, or else deliberately catching them on fire for a charred sticky mess, which actually tasted quite good. That's how I prefer my marshmallows, just this side of burnt, right off the stick. The caramelized crust gives way and the marshmallow melts in your mouth instantly. The next preferred method of consuming marshmallows is atop hot chocolate. That's hard to resist. I have to admit, though, that the crackers are the best part.

Homemade graham crackers are nothing like the boxed honey grahams you used to eat as a kid. The quantity of butter used takes them to a level far, far superior to that of their shrink-wrapped counterparts, which just taste dry after comparison. Butter can make that difference. What makes these particular crackers irresistible is the buttery crunch and the toasty graham flavor, a combination of whole wheat flour, honey and brown sugar, and just a touch of cinnamon. Nutella is nice smeared on them, a roasted marshmallow is nice sandwiched between two, but they really don't need anything. Munch on a couple and you'll be surprisingly satisfied. I guess I'm more of a deconstructed s'more person, preferring to eat each part of one separately, and not necessarily at the same time. To each their own.

However you like your graham crackers and marshmallows, cooking up a batch of either or both recipes could be a fun activity for Valentine's Day, something to keep you in and out of the rain, as our blissful few weeks of sunny days comes to an end on this day of all days. It had to come sometime. All the more reason to build a fire and roast some marshmallows, right?

For the crackers, use whatever type of honey you prefer, from mild to robust. For the marshmallows, the original recipe calls for corn syrup, as all marshmallow recipes do, but as I'm not a fan of the stuff, I used honey, which works equally well and serves the same purpose. I ended up using star thistle honey for both recipes, and that turned out fine, but unless you want your marshmallows tasting a lot like honey, stick to something mild-flavored.

Graham Crackers
Adapted from The Craft of Baking

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. cinnamon
8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup honey
2 tsp. vanilla

In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon.

In a large bowl, beat the butter, both sugars, honey, and vanilla until well combined. Add the dry ingredients in two additions, beating well before adding the second. Flatten the dough into a rectangular shape, wrap in plastic, and chill at least 30 minutes, or up to two days.

Position racks in upper and bottom thirds of oven and preheat to 350° F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

If the dough has chilled overnight, allow it to rest on the counter for 10 - 15 minutes to soften just a little. When ready, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface about inch thick. Using a ruler and a sharp knife, cut dough into 2½ x 2½-inch squares. Use a spatula to transfer the squares to the prepared baking sheets. Reroll the scraps of dough and cut out more squares as needed. Using the knife, cut a line down the middle of each square about halfway into the dough, then using a fork, pierce each square with a row of four marks on each side of the line.

Back the crackers, rotating the baking sheets halfway through, until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer parchment with graham crackers to wire racks, and cool completely. They will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Makes about 32 graham crackers.

Adapted from Gourmet, December 1998

about 1 cup confectioners' sugar
3 ½ envelopes (2 Tbsp plus 2 ½ tsp) unflavored gelatin
½ cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
½ cup mild-flavored honey
½ cup hot water (about 115° F)
¼ tsp salt
2 large egg whites*
1 tsp vanilla

*if egg safety is a problem in your area, substitute powdered egg whites reconstituted according to manufacturer's instructions

Oil bottom and sides of a 13x9x2-inch rectangular metal baking pan and dust bottom and sides with some confectioners' sugar.

In bowl of a standing electric mixer or in a large bowl sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let stand to soften.

In a 3-quart heavy saucepan cook granulated sugar, honey, hot water, and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240° F, about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is dissolved.

With standing or a hand-held electric mixer beat mixture on high speed until white, thick, and nearly tripled in volume, about 6 minutes if using standing mixer or about 10 minutes if using hand-held mixer. In a large bowl with cleaned beaters beat whites (or reconstituted powdered whites) until they just hold stiff peaks. Beat whites and vanilla into sugar mixture until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan and sift ¼ cup confectioners' sugar evenly over top. Chill marshmallow, uncovered, until firm, at least 3 hours, and up to 1 day.

Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto a large cutting board. Lifting up 1 corner of inverted pan, with fingers loosen marshmallow and let drop onto cutting board. With a large knife trim edges of marshmallow and cut marshmallow into roughly 1-inch cubes. Sift remaining confectioners' sugar into a large bowl and add marshmallows in batches, tossing to evenly coat. Marshmallows keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature 1 week.

Makes about 96 marshmallows.

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