Use marshmallow root to recreate two different healthy and historical marshmallow recipes.
By guest author Jessie Lehson
I first encountered marshmallow root (Althea officinalis) when I was not so successfully breastfeeding my first child. It wasn’t going well and I was trying every cream, lotion and salve I could find. I finally found one that worked (don’t worry I also found a lactation consultant and solved the root issue as well) and while I no longer even remember the name- I do remember that the active ingredient was marshmallow root. I now use marshmallow root in everything- nothing is better for dry skin, it’s even great with eczema.
Shortly thereafter, I started making elderberry syrup on a regular basis. I have always been one of those people who just always seems to have the sniffles so I wanted to throw in some cough and cold herbs too. As is my modus operandi, I spent a long time researching different recipes from different herbalists before concocting my own. I was surprised to see my old friend marshmallow pop up in a number of cough/ cold syrups. As it turns out marshmallow root is mucilaginous, meaning that it produces a slimy goo when mixed with water (think flax egg) and that is super healing for a sore throat. So marshmallow root became a regular part of my elderberry syrup. I tend to be a forgetful syrup maker, so when I’m making my decoction I often let it cook too long. I started noticing that my syrup would take on the consistency of jelly when I let it go too long and realized that it was from the marshmallow root.
Marshmallow has a long history of being used to heal. It’s latin name Althaea is actually Greek for “healer.” Officinalis in the taxonomic nomenclature denotes a plant that has some kind of known herbal or healing property. The latin word comes from the “officina” an actual building in medieval monasteries where monks prepared pharmaceutical preparations to heal the sick. This means the botanical name of Marshmallow literally means healing medicinal plant. It has been used to heal for centuries by people from many different cultures.
Marshmallow contains chemicals that help heal and decrease inflammation. It is thought to coat and create a protective layer on parts of the body it is applied to. The marshmallow root, in particular, contains a mucilaginous sap that, when ingested, creates a protective coating. (web md) A small study from 2005 found that an herbal cough syrup containing marshmallow root was effective in relieving coughs due to colds, bronchitis, or respiratory tract diseases with formation of mucus. (study) Marshmallow root appears to act as an enzyme to loosen mucous and inhibit bacteria. Lozenges containing marshmallow root extract help dry coughs and an irritated throat. (study) The results of one 2015 animal study suggest that marshmallow root extract has the potential to treat gram-positive bacteria. These bacteria are responsible for over 50 percent of the infections that occur and include the antibiotic-resistant “super bugs.” When applied topically to rat wounds, the extract significantly increased wound healing in comparison to antibiotic controls. (study)
I had planted marshmallow years before my marshmallow root epiphany without knowing how much I would come to like using the root, just because I had a vague idea that I could
use them to make marshmallows. It was one of those “I’ll get to that someday” type projects. After learning that marshmallow was the Plant Wonder Collective’s January plant I decided that it’s finally time!
It's unclear when marshmallows (the confection) were invented. Most sources agree that there was a marshmallow like confection being made in Ancient Egypt as early as 2000 BCE with marshmallow root however. Ancient Egyptians were known to use the roots to make a cough syrup, but the confection was labor intensive to make and reserved for royalty and gods. There are no known recipes, just vague descriptions often written much later than the marshmallow confections were being made. Most accounts agree that the main ingredients were marshmallow root, honey and almonds, but there is no indication of how they were combined. It’s possible that it was an early form of havla, which still sometimes contains marshmallow root or a precursor to Italian nougat which itself has roots in North Africa and Egypt. Adventures in Taste and Time has a great write up about the specifics and I used her recipe to start my own experiments. I consider myself something of an armchair food historian so I find the background behind these recipes fascinating.
The recipe below is very similar in process to a torrone (or an italian meringue.) It so happens that torrone is one of my favorite treats and I make it every winter, so it was an easy starting place. I use the modern technique of pouring the hot syrup into egg whites in a stand mixer. (Which sidebar, this is the sort of thing that fascinates me– who initially got the idea to pour molten sugar into whipped egg whites?? I know it works and I am still hesitant every time.) If you want the more historically accurate version check out the recipe linked above. I was honestly skeptical that the marshmallow version would really be any different- it is almost exactly torrone minus the marshmallow root and some sugar. Torrone sets without gelatin so I wasn’t sure that it would be any different. I was wrong– the texture is hugely different. It’s much softer and well… marshmallowy. It forms a skin that lets you pick it up, but it’s almost like a liquid inside. It was hard to eat, but incredibly delicious- I can see why the gods wanted to keep it for themselves.
Maybe Ancient Egyptian Nougat
An incredibly complex flavor that belies it’s simple ingredients, this nougat is delicious. The texture is very soft and unusual- as it turns out the marshmallow root renders it quite marshmallowy.
1 TBS dried marshmallow root
1 cup of water
8 oz honey
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla
Roasted salted almonds
Cornstarch (for dusting)
Combine the water and dried marshmallow root in a mason jar and sit on the counter overnight.
Strain out the root pieces with cheesecloth and pour your marshmallow liquid into a large saucepan. (go bigger than you think around 5 quart, the boiling liquid will expand to many times its current size) The liquid will be quite viscous and you should squeeze the cloth to get all of the goo out. Bring the extraction to a boil and reduce by half, which should take about 5 minutes.
Add the honey to the pot with the extraction. Heat the honey mixture over low heat stirring to incorporate. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat without stirring. Put a thermometer into the syrup and continue boiling, stirring occasionally until you reach 295- 300 °F (hard crack stage) The syrup will expand quite a bit and start to caramelize, the bubbles will get smaller as it gets close to being down. Even when I felt like it got a little burnt smelling the resulting candy was delicious.
Start beating the egg whites and salt in your mixer with the whisk attachment after the syrup gets to around 250°F, beating until they hold soft peaks. (You don’t want to do it too soon or they will deflate)
When your syrup comes to temperature, remove it from the heat. In a traditional nougat you would then wait for the bubbles to dissipate, but they don’t. The marshmallow extraction seems to stabilize them. Switch your mixture to the lowest speed and slowly pour the hot syrup down the side of the bowl. This is tricky to do with this recipe because the syrup stays quite bubbly, but as long as you add it slowly you should be fine. Bits of the syrup will harden on the side of the bowl- don’t worry about them, once it’s cooled it can’t be mixed in. (Super hot water will melt the hardened candy out of your pot.)
Increase the mixer speed to high and beat until mixture has cooled to warm (the mixture will puff up then fall), about 20 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat 1 minute more. Stir in the almonds with a spatula.
Cover a cutting board or piece or parchment with cornstarch- be generous, this is sticky stuff.
Spoon the mixture onto cornstarch and gently knead a few times with hands dipped in cornstarch. Pat into an approximately 8 x 8’ square and let stand at room temperature for at least 8 hours. I found that putting it in the fridge uncovered helped to dry it out even more. I picked up my parchment paper and plopped it into a 8 x 8’ pan to make it easier to move around. Cut into pieces and enjoy!
While the Egyptian Marshmallow Nougat was delicious it wasn’t what we now think of as a marshmallow. For that we have to skip to 18th century France and the “pâte de guimauve” which literally translates as marshmallow dough. In modern French, pâte de guimauve still refers to marshmallow fluff. This confection was developed as a health remedy and in fact many of the images I found either touted health benefits or were produced by pharmacists. Most translations refer to marshmallows as a “lozenge” rather than a candy. Pâte de guimauve was used to relieve sore throats. An excerpt from The Family Receipt-book, or, Universal Repository of Useful Knowledge and Experience in All the Various Branches of Economy, 1810 says: “Famous Tablets de Guimauve, or French Lozenges of Marshmallows, being their grand Remedies for all Sorts of Coughs. These Lozenges are considered throughout France, as among the very best remedies for coughs of almost every description.”
A Cyclopædia of Several Thousand Practical Reciepts: And Collateral Information in the Arts, Manufactures, and Trades, Including Medicine, Pharmacy, and Domestic Economy. Designed as a Compendious Book of Reference for the Manufacture, Tradesman, Amateur, and Heads of Families by Arnold James Cooley 1846
Pâte de guimauve uses sugar rather than honey and adds gum arabic as an additional stabilizer. The modern marshmallow recipe isn’t that different except that the marshmallow root was replaced by gelatin which is cheaper and more stable. Gelatin seems like a pretty pedestrian ingredient now, but the invention of a tasteless colorless gelatin was revolutionary at the time.
Because of the marshmallow’s storied reputation as a cough and cold medicine I decided to make a medicinal hot chocolate with elderberry, astragalus root and cinnamon to increase my healthy quotient. Because why not? Just infuse your milk of choice with the herbs and then make your regular cocoa. Medicine never tasted so good!
Pâte de Guimauve
This recipe makes a soft, but reasonable marshmallow. It lacks the complex flavor of the nougat, in fact I really couldn’t taste the marshmallow root at all. This is based on the 19th c french recipe translated by Adventures in Taste and Time but updated with more modern techniques.
8 grams marshmallow root (around 2 TBS)
2 cups water
250 grams gum arabic
250 grams white sugar
3 egg whites
1 TBS vanilla extract
Powdered sugar or cornstarch
Soak the marshmallow root in the water overnight.
Pour the marshmallow extraction (root pieces and all) into a medium saucepan. Add the gum arabic and bring to a low boil. Continue stirring until all of the gum arabic is dissolved- around 10-15 minutes. Strain out the root pieces with cheesecloth.
Pour the strained gum/ marshmallow mixture into a larger pot and add the sugar. Stir until incorporated that then cook over medium heat until a thermometer reaches 250°F
At around 210°F whip your egg whites and a pinch of salt to stiff peaks with the whisk attachment in the bowl of a stand mixer. Once the sugar syrup has come to temperature, turn teh stand mixer to low and slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl with the mixer running. Once the syrup is added, turn the mixer to high and beat until the mixture keeps its shape and cools down, around 10 minutes.
Cover either a marble cutting board or parchment with powdered sugar or cornstarch and scoop out the marshmallow. With starched hands pat it into a rectangle and pat more starch on top. Let sit for at least six hours.
Cut into squares and dip the cut sides and anything still sticky into powdered sugar again. Turn the marshmallows over and separate them and let them dry more. (You are trying to get each side to form a skin and stop being sticky- it works but takes forever)
Of the two recipes I vastly preferred the nougat– it was way too soft and I may keep tinkering with the recipe, but the flavor was complex and amazing. The pâte de guimauve was ok, but just tasted like a standard sugary marshmallow with way more work. I don’t really love marshmallows though in fairness, and I do love nougat, so if a more standard marshmallow is your thing and you have a cough… the pâte de guimauve might be just the thing for you!
Jessie is the director and founder of a nature arts school, a former sculpture professor, permaculturist and card carrying crazy plant lady.
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