Kitchen Witch - Homemade fake food

I owned a Snoopy lunchbox in the first grade. I remember its contents like it was yesterday: bologna sandwich on white; a waxy, Red Delicious apple from Acme; and the highlight of my meal, a surprise snack food item.

I was the great arbiter of processed snack foods. Truth be told, I would have died happy getting a bag of Fritos in my lunchbox every day. But life as a middle-class 6-year-old was tough. Sometimes, my mom threw in something sweet instead. Second-place contenders included the foil-wrapped Ring Ding or a wax paper-lined duo of butterscotch Krimpets. I wrinkled my nose at a Devil Dog (way too dry) or a Twinkie (too much cream center).

But the worst thing you could do to my lunch was throw in a scooter pie. Also known as a Moon Pie, the scooter pie was an escalloped, chocolaty-coated marshmallow cookie thing that promised culinary pleasures with its glistening chocolate exterior. One bite, and the gag reflex kicked in, protecting me from that mixture of saw dust and the stuff that painters use to cover up holes in walls.

In fact, the scooter pie got in my way of enjoying the quintessential American childhood experience: s'mores. When it came time for campfires at Girl Scout sleepover camp, I succumbed to the pressure of roasting marshmallows and squishing them in between graham crackers. Secretly though, I preferred the warmth of the softened chocolate mingling with the crunch of my graham crackers.

It took me 37 years to get over my disdain for the marshmallow. Last fall, I took matters into my own hands and decided to make marshmallows. Homemade marshmallows. I know, it sounds as funny as "jumbo shrimp." And the verdict is: For fake food, they ain't bad. You can really taste the vanilla, the texture is chewy rather than squishy, and they are terrific Halloween party treats. And to make things even more festive, don't forget the food coloring. (Oh, come on. You're already eating corn syrup, gelatin and sugar.)

Marshmallows Adapted from The Ultimate Candy Book by Bruce Weinstein

Equipment needed: Candy thermometer, electric mixer

3 envelopes unflavored gelatin (vegetarian brands: Pangea and Vegan Essentials)

1 1/2 cups water

2 cups sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Food coloring (optional)

Confectioner's sugar for coating the candy

Smear the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch pan with vegetable oil; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 3/4 cups cold water. Cover the bowl and let it soften until ready to use.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine sugar, 3/4 cups corn syrup and 3/4 cups water. Cook over medium heat; stir until sugar dissolves completely and mixture comes to a boil. Clip candy thermometer to the inside of the pan and cook syrup WITHOUT STIRRING until it reaches 240 degrees (known as the soft ball stage). Remove pan from heat and add remaining 1/4 cup corn syrup.

With an electric mixer (or Kitchen-Aid standing mixer), incorporate the hot syrup into the large bowl containing the softened gelatin in a slow, steady stream. Beat for 10 minutes, or until mixture triples in volume and becomes stiff. Add vanilla. (For a touch of Halloween or any other festive occasion, add five drops of food coloring).

Spread mixture into the oiled pan. Smooth the top as much as possible using a rubber spatula. Set aside, uncovered, for 8 to 10 hours, at room temperature, or until mixture is cool and firm. (Great to let set overnight, while you have marshmallow dreams.)

When ready, run a knife around the edge of pan to loosen up the marshmallow. Invert onto a cutting board or another flat surface that is dusted with confectioner's sugar. You may need to pry candy out of the pan with your fingers. Sift more confectioner's over the marshmallow once unmolded.

Score with a sharp knife or pizza cutter. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, for up to a few weeks. Makes 36 3-inch squares.


Kim O'Donnel, the host of What's Cooking on washingtonpost.com, tests all the recipes so you don't have to. Send questions and comments to kim.odonnel at creativeloafing.com.

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