With harvest season winding down, it's time for dessert. How about some candy from the garden?
Of course, you can't just pluck a squishy marshmallow from a marshmallow bush or tree. But marshmallows originally were made from the candied roots of a plant. And that plant is aptly called marsh mallow.
Digging up marshmallows
You can grow marsh mallow, and if you do, now would be a good time to dig up a few pieces of root, candy them and compare them with the fluffy product sold under the same name in plastic bags.
Those bagged marshmallows, incidentally, are no longer made from marsh mallow roots. They are made from a mixture of sugars, egg whites and gelatin beaten together.
As you scratch into the soil at the base of a marsh mallow plant, the resemblance of marsh mallow roots to marshmallow candy becomes apparent. It doesn't take long for a plant to develop fat white roots. After only a couple of years, roots might get as fat as ï¿½ inches in diameter, radiating out just below the soil surface.
You can chop off a couple of these roots, take them to the kitchen, scrape them clean, then slice them into rounds the size of miniature marshmallows. Back in the garden, the plant hardly knows it's had a few roots removed.
The candying process, described in various old cookbooks for things such as citron peels and angelica roots, works well for marsh mallow roots. The process begins with boiling the root pieces to soften them. This step takes about 30 minutes.
The next step is to pour off the water and cover the marshmallows-to-be with a syrup made by heating a mixture of two parts sugar to one part water. Homemade marshmallows do rival the commercial ones for sweetness.
Root pieces are boiled in the syrup until almost all the liquid evaporates. Once everything cools and hardens a bit, why not assemble a taste panel to see how these old-fashioned, real marshmallows sit on modern palates?
Besides being supersweet, these old-fashioned marshmallows will probably be a bit tough. But they should have a squishiness that bears a vague resemblance to the store-bought product.
Trial by fire
You also might want to subject your homemade marshmallows to the fire test. Stick one on the end of an awl and singe it with a blowtorch, if that's most convenient for a quick test, or go the whole route, with stick and an outdoor fire. You'll find that the homemade marshmallow will brown and give off an odor similar to commercial marshmallows. But homemade marshmallows will not collapse into goo.
Marsh mallow flowers
Even if you don't become enthusiastic for homemade marshmallow candy, you might want to grow marsh mallow plants for their flowers. They are as pretty as you would expect from a plant related to such beauties as hibiscus, rose-of-Sharon and hollyhock. They make a sprawling mound about 4 feet high and wide, its stems clothed all summer long in velvety green leaves and blossoms looking like pink hoop skirts.
Although native to coastal marshes from New York to Florida, marsh mallow will thrive without salt or boggy soil.
Among the native fauna that enjoy this plant are deer, which eat the stems. I wonder whether they'd like the roots candied?