Marshmallows have a long and interesting history. The ancient Egyptians first developed the sweet some 4000 years ago using the mallow plant that grew wild in the marshes along the Nile River, hence their name “marsh mallows.” They used the white, sweet sap from marsh mallow roots to thicken a mixture of nuts and honey. It wasn’t a treat for everyone though. It was considered a food for the gods and severed only to the pharaohs and members of his royal family. What the first marshmallows looked like, no one really knows.
The ingredients and methods used to make marshmallows have changed greatly over the centuries. In the early to mid-1800’s French candy store owners whipped egg whites, sugar and mallow sap into a fluffy meringue. They placed the mixture in cylindrical molds, giving the marshmallows their familiar shape. This rather time-consuming process produced marshmallows so costly only the wealthy could afford them.
By the late 1800’s a new recipe and a new method of making marshmallows emerged. Cornstarch and gelatin replaced the mallow sap and machines replaced hand mixing. Once hardened and placed in tins, the marshmallows sold as penny candy and became a treat everyone could afford.
In 1954, American Alex Doumakes, the son of a Greek immigrant candy maker, developed the marshmallow recipe and manufacturing process in use today. He combined corn syrup or sugar, gelatin, gum arabic and flavoring for his marshmallow recipe. Instead of making them by hand, he squeezed the mixture from long tubes to create long spongy marshmallow ropes. After a dusting them with non-stick corn-starch, the ropes were sliced into the bite-sized chunks familiar today. The whole process slashed production time from 24 hours to just 6o minutes.
You might be surprised to learn that marshmallows were once used as medication. The Romans and Greeks, as well as nineteenth century doctors, hardened marshmallows to looked like lozenges and prescribed them to soothe sore throats, to suppress coughs, to cureulcers and to treat toothaches and insect bites. While marshmallows are no longer used as medication, the mallow’s roots, leaves and flowers are used to make a wide variety of pharmaceuticals and herbal remedies.
Today, eaten straight from the bag, used to make cookies or toasted over a campfire, marshmallows have proven to be a popular year-round snack.