Okay, my bad. This should have been posted a few weeks ago. I started a draft early, thinking that when the day came I’d be able to hit “publish”, tweet out the URL, and I’d be all set. I never finished the draft, though, because I got seriously derailed by an office move, the holidays, and…
I spent the first couple of weeks of 2017 in London, England in observance of my 50th birthday – because, as I came to realize, staying home in Cambridge just would not have been appropriately grim. The trip was a real mixed bag. The weather was kind of awful, as is traditional in London in January, but not so awful that we were sorry we missed a snowstorm and frigid temperatures back home. We stayed in Whitechapel and enjoyed exploring London’s East End and beyond, seeking out historic sites and good food, but spending the bulk of each day wearing my coat made me feel like an exile. We walked around a lot, enough that I found it tiring, but the flat where we were staying felt close and dreary, and Bryan went out for walks after I was done for the day because he wanted to spend as little time there as possible. The trip ended in a dispute with the owner of the flat over the towels, which had inexplicably discolored in the course of normal use and cost us an extra £50 and any positive feelings we might have had for the place.
We got home late on the night of January 16, and I’ve been catching up on a bunch of things – work, the DVR, the news, sleep – since then. Actually, I haven’t had to spend much time catching up on the news, because I had my iPad with me and access to social media, so I got to hear all about then-PEOTUS’s peccadilloes in the run-up to the inauguration. It was on my birthday that the intelligence reports with “salacious details” hit the news, and far too often that big orange face was on the front pages of the newspapers we saw people reading while riding the tube. This did not exactly fill me with pride as an American.
Inauguration day ended up being sadder than I’d expected, not as bad as the day after the election, but still a rough day. I couldn’t stomach watching the ceremony or our new POTUS’s address, but I read a transcript of the address. It really was dark. Someone should have yelled out “Lighten up, Francis!” at some point, because the whole thing was a total drag for just about everyone except Trump, who was clearly meant to be the hero of the piece. Sad.
Casting about for mitigating humor, I enjoyed the silliness of that obviously staged photo he tweeted with the claim that it showed him writing his inauguration speech. What tipped me off to the sheer bogosity of the thing: nobody gets stuck into a heavy writing job in formal business wear. Someone could at least have told him to take off his jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves. I myself typically write in pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt. Maybe if he’d written the speech in, say, silk pajamas, it wouldn’t have been so grim. (*wink* Yes, I know he didn’t actually write it himself.)
Then I was briefly cheered by attending the Boston Women’s March the day after the inauguration. As we know now, attendance was far larger than organizers had anticipated, and strains on Boston’s public transit system made it challenging to get together with the people we were supposed to be meeting, but that was a good problem to have. I was proud to be part of what turned out to be a truly “yuge” worldwide protest, and heartened and humbled by, and deeply grateful for, all the support we had from outside the U.S.
We’d barely had time to catch our breath when our rickety car headed down the next long, steep slope on the political roller-coaster. It’s been such a long couple of weeks since the inauguration. MIT is one place that I would guess has been disproportionately affected by the immigration ban, and even my colleagues who aren’t from the seven named countries are feeling anxious. I’ve never been so deeply ashamed of the government that purports to represent me. It’s not a good feeling.
So it’s been a little difficult to focus on Jell-O lately. It seems so trivial – but I know that staying focused on current events can only lead to burnout. We all need a break once in a while.
I remember Pastel Candied Fruit Peel relatively well, probably because the candy recipes are more interesting to make. I kind of wish I’d decided to make it again, because it turned out to be time-consuming and I think it would have been soothing to do. The fruit peel came from three large grapefruits (the book specifies that they should be “free from blemishes”) which had to be juiced and boiled for 15 minutes before the pulp and pith were removed.
I cut the peel into strips, boiled them for another 15 minutes, and then cooked them in a Jell-O-and-sugar syrup seasoned with cinnamon and cloves for 50 minutes. (The recipe says to use any flavor of Jell-O. I don’t remember what I used. I think it was probably lemon.) At that point, the syrup had gotten quite thick, and I had to work very quickly, tossing the sticky peels in dry sugar a few at a time. The syrup cooled quickly and formed strings as I worked my way through the peels. It was a pain to work with, but at the same time it was the sort of work that requires focused, almost meditative, concentration, which is so good for the mind and spirit.
This was another one that made the kitchen smell like a Cracker Barrel, not a terrible thing. I guess it kind of tasted like a Cracker Barrel, too, which is always a little strange. There’s something about the flavorings of Jell-O gelatin that makes the flavors of spices taste unbalanced. Still, Bryan and I agreed that it only rated one “nasty”; that is, it was among the least offensive recipes in the book.
So you know, I’m actually caught up on the cooking part of the blog. I’d left myself a free week after my vacation, so now I’m just a little behind on the writing, but I’m shooting to get caught up this weekend. You’d think this writing jazz was hard or something…
Author’s Note: Woo! So my trainer bailed on me at the last possible moment – after I’d taken a double dose of C4 preworkout. Looks like I’m finishing this post á la Jack Kerouac, on speed and listening to jazz…
“Every eighteen months the storage capacity of a marshmallow doubles. I believe that’s called S’More’s Law.” — Stephen Colbert
I was inspired to tackle this one when I saw Stephen Colbert interview Walter Mischel about his book, The Marshmallow Test, which describes a test devised in the 1960s to measure children’s self-control and ability to delay gratification. Given that I grew up in a large family in which resources were stretched thin, “delayed” is the only kind of gratification I know (I haven’t even ordered a new iPhone yet), but what really caught my attention were the marshmallows that Professor Mischel brought on the show to test Colbert’s self-control. He said they were from Paris, and they were pink and cube-shaped and probably made in a kitchen by a confiseur, not extruded in a factory like the bowl of Jet-Puffed that Colbert had handy. I thought that was a lovely and classy gesture on Mischel’s part, and it just seemed like the Universe was telling me to make Fruit Flavor Marshmallows.
Jumping ahead a bit, I was so pleased with how this worked out that I’m not going to describe at length the process of making them; I’m just going to post the recipe and recommend that you go for it:
- 1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O Gelatin, any flavor
- 1/2 cup boiling water
- 3/4 cup sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
Dissolve gelatin in boiling water in a saucepan over very low heat. Add sugar, cook and stir just until sugar is dissolved. (Do not boil.) Blend in corn syrup. Chill until slightly thickened. Beat at highest speed of electric mixer until mixture is thickened and will stand in soft peaks — about 8 to 10 minutes. Pour into an 8-inch square pan which has been lined on sides and bottom with waxed paper and the paper greased with butter or margarine. Chill overnight.
Turn mixture out onto a board heavily dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Carefully peel off waxed paper and dust surfaces heavily with sugar. Cut into 1-inch squares or into shapes, using small cookie cutters dipped in sugar. Roll cut edges in sugar. Store tightly covered. Makes about 5 dozen confections.
I have just a few tips to add to this. By “electric mixer” they mean a stand mixer; it really does take a while to beat this into the right consistency, and you don’t want to be standing over this for ten minutes holding up your Mixmaster Junior. At least, I don’t. For beating, use the whisk attachment on your mixer. It will be less messy at the outset and get you the desired results. Five dozen seems optimistic, unless you cut them very small, but that’s not a terrible idea. These are tasty, but very sweet.
I had never had non-store-bought marshmallows before, and it was interesting to find that these were much softer in consistency, so soft that it’s a little surprising I was able to cut them easily, and they’ve held their rough cube shapes. I used raspberry-flavored Jell-O, so my marshmallows were pink like Professor Mischel’s, albeit stickier.
Since I had nothing in my memory to which to compare them, I decided that I would also try to make “real” marshmallows from scratch out of a regular recipe book. At Bryan’s suggestion, I used the recipe from Who Wants Candy? by Jane Sharrock. Fundamentally it was quite similar to the Jell-O version, but this was proper candy-making, the dangerous kind. It involved dissolving two cups of sugar and three quarters of a cup of corn syrup in a half-cup of boiling water (it really is astonishing how much sugar you can dissolve in water if it’s hot enough) and then cooking the molten sweetness to a temperature of (as the recipe instructed) 236°F. I haven’t done much candy-making, but I knew that this sort of hot molten sugar is commonly known in chef circles as “napalm” and must be handled carefully, so I was walking a fine line between confidence and caution. We didn’t have a candy thermometer when I made this, so I used a lab thermometer that Bryan had bought thinking it would be useful for general cooking purposes. I don’t recommend it for this purpose, however. I poked the probe into the sugar syrup occasionally, but as the temperature got into the high two-twenties, I decided that I should keep the probe in there and stand over it as the temperature went up the last few degrees. That was stupid. Get a damn candy thermometer, people! (That’s what we did! Can’t wait to try it!)
Once the syrup was cooked to the “soft ball stage”, I took it off the heat and added water-soaked unflavored gelatin to it. Then it was back to the mixer.
A couple of things about the mixer, which is a Kitchen-Aid we got as a gift from friends the first time we got married almost twenty-two years ago. One, it’s a smaller model and, unbeknownst to me, it had been taking a beating since Bryan started on a bread-making kick a few years ago, so the bowls weren’t screwing onto the base securely anymore, and the motor housing seemed to be slowly coming unseated and juddered in a worrying way as I set the speed higher*. Two, after the Jell-O marshmallows I was unsure that using the whisk attachment was the correct way to go, as both recipes just said to “beat” the molten sugar/gelatin mixture, so I decided to use the regular mixing attachment for the plain marshmallows. That was a mistake. Once I got the speed up past medium, the mixer started flinging drops of napalm around that end of the kitchen counter, and we had to approach it carefully, shut it off, and switch attachments. It went much more smoothly with the whisk.
The mixture was supposed to get fluffy and “hold its shape”. It did increase in volume quite a bit, until it looked and tasted like a slightly thinner version of Marshmallow Fluff, but it didn’t seem to want to get stiffer than that. At that point, I decided all I could do was pour it in the pan and hope for the best.
Rather than buttered wax paper, the recipe said to line a 13″ x 9″ pan with confectioner’s sugar, fully covering the bottom of the pan and running powdered sugar up the sides as far as possible with the back of a spoon. It sort of worked, a bit like when you line a springform pan with a crumb crust for cheesecake, but I was dubious. The powdered sugar stayed put while I added the marshmallow creme, and that made me feel a little better. The recipe said it just needed to sit for twenty minutes or so before cutting. Again, I was dubious, so I popped it into the fridge for luck and set about washing the dishes. Then I gave it several more minutes.
At first, trying to cut it made no sense. Per the recipe, I tried doing it with a knife dipped in hot water, but it seemed like the marshmallow “healed” as soon as I was done cutting. It felt stiffer to the touch, though, so I shifted technique a little, and started dipping the knife in powdered sugar rather than hot water. That worked better. I had to use a cookie spatula to lift the marshmallows out of the pan because they stuck to the pan and I couldn’t turn them out. They were very soft, but seemed to be holding their shape even as I rolled them in powdered sugar. I put them in a plastic container, not touching, and each layer separated by wax paper just in case.
I will say that they tasted good, with more of a real vanilla flavor than you get in your Jet-Puffed or Sta-Puft or whatever your favorite supermarket brand is. I could totally see the appeal of making these in different, non-Jell-O flavors. The only thing is, they never really stiffened up. In fact, there was still so much moisture in them that they absorbed most of the powdered sugar coating overnight and were sticky when I brought them out in the Lab after lunch. I had brought both sets of marshmallows into the Lab to see if I could get some fresh palates to sample them, but I had very few takers, and they seemed more impressed with the idea of homemade marshmallows than with the actual product.
I have a couple of ideas for what didn’t quite work with the vanilla marshmallows. One is that there might not have been quite enough unflavored gelatin. The recipe called for two tablespoons of gelatin, but a packet of Knox gelatin, which is what I had on hand, is a little less than one tablespoon, so two packets comes up a few milligrams short. Still, the Knox site says to consider a packet to be a tablespoon, so maybe that wasn’t the issue. The more likely culprit is the recipe’s instruction to cook the sugar to the soft ball stage. Our new candy thermometer, and at least one other marshmallow recipe, say to cook the sugar to the hard ball stage, 260°F. I’ll have to try that next time.
So now we have a lot of marshmallows on hand. The raspberry ones are really good in hot cocoa, and I expect at least some of Jell-O’s other fruit flavors would as well. As for the plain marshmallows, Bryan discovered that they’re good for making “fluffernutters”. No waste this time. I have to say that while there is a good chance I’ll try making marshmallows from scratch again, the Jell-O version is a good, less complicated alternative. Finally!
* Bryan has ordered us a new mixer, a heavier-duty Kenwood that has fancy attachments and possibly comes with a splash guard, which will make me feel better about future candy-making endeavors. We’re very grateful to the friends who gave us that old Kitchen-Aid that gave us over two decades of faithful service.