Sweet foods, all comforting, soft and pappy, have proved popular in this recession. Over the past few years we've seen revivals or rediscoveries of cupcakes, whoopie pies, syrups and bacon jams, of posh ice creams and doughnuts, the American-style pairings of pig and sugar. Mouth-coating sweetnesses that help people stave off fears of the debtors' yard. Now it seems to be marshmallows' turn. Those lurid, chemical, factory extrusions are suddenly all-natural, imbued with fresh fruit, natural flavourings, authentic fillings and sweet gourmet prejudice.
How to account for this? Marshmallows represent a Proustian jolt back to childhood: to campfires, sweetie jars, the Ghostbusters films, fairgrounds and the Sunday cinema pick 'n' mix. Their tongue-coating squidginess is deeply reassuring. So it was perhaps inevitable that marshmallows would make a comeback. What is surprising is the speed with which they've done so.
The 'gourmet' marshmallow trend seems to have started in Vancouver, where an outfit called Butter Baked Goods began to produce high-end examples as early as 2009 – they now flog them across North America. All of a sudden marshmallow shops, or sweet shops or bakeries specialising in marshmallows, have been opening across the US. The New York Times says marshmallows are "having a moment in retro-land". They "are the new cupcakes," claims a co-owner of the Three Tarts Bakery in Manhattan, where fancy marshmallows go for roughly $1 apiece, in flavours such as mango, passion fruit and strawberry-basil.
Rural Americans are also catered for, with mail-order marshmallow companies experiencing a surge in sales. One such is called Sugar Poofs – not a name that translates particularly well – but the flavours are bold and inspired: lavender and vanilla, banana curry, and a white Russian, including coffee liqueur and Irish cream.
The trend has at last reached the UK. "Marshmallows have definitely come on the scene recently," says Bea Vo, who runs the boutique bakery Bea's of Bloomsbury. Vo sells marshmallows including vanilla-caramel swirl, strawberry-mango and "Lamingtons", cocoa-flavoured marshmallows dipped in coconut. "They're fun and nostalgic," she says, "but have a modern twist. You really get to play with flavours." What makes a good marshmallow? "No artificial ingredients, a nice soft pillowy texture and good stickiness. Ours taste intensely of fruit or liqueur or chocolate because they're made with the real thing: fruit puree, good alcohol, Valrhona cocoa powder."
A few UK companies, such as Bags of Delight and Sweet Treats, sell gourmet marshmallows nationwide. I hear good reports of the Edinburgh-based Burgh Bakes, who make marshmallows flavoured with the superb local Innis & Gunn beer.
Jamie Raines is the senior sous chef in pastry at the recently opened Delaunay in London. "We've had marshmallows on the menu from the start," he says. "They're getting more popular every day. The takeaway ones have been especially successful." Raines currently makes lemon, raspberry, apple and passionfruit marshmallows: "The passionfruit is my favourite: it's a beautiful yellow, and the fruit's natural tang brings a lovely balance to the sugar." Like most people, Raines found a taste for marshmallows in childhood: "I grew up in Woking, where there was a sweet shop across the road selling everything in jars. They used to have lengths of raspberry marshmallow: good-quality stuff, too, none of the cheap tat you get now."
British chefs are increasingly using marshmallows in specific dishes – the Latymer in Surrey has a starter of marshmallow with foie gras cannelloni, jabugo ham, cantaloupe melon and camomile film. Rather more enticingly, Trinity restaurant in Clapham, London, serves a frozen-yoghurt dessert with blueberries and marshmallow flavoured with toasted pecans.
At the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows on Park Lane, chef André Garrett serves jars of exquisitely squidgy marshmallows to guests as petits fours. "It's a lovely thing for them to nibble on when they've finished their meal," he says. "One of the nicest bits of tableside theatre I've seen was at Jean Georges restaurant in New York. The marshmallows were coiled high on dessert trolleys and the waiters snipped them off for you. It was fantastic, and it's nice that people are enjoying them again in that kind of way. But I'd love to see people cooking them at home, too. They're easy if you follow a recipe: all you need is a mixer and a sugar thermometer. It's a proper taste of childhood."
André Garrett's raspberry marshmallows
100g fresh raspberries
Approx 200g of icing sugar and cornflour, mixed
20g liquid glucose
45g fresh egg white
12g leaf gelatine (or powdered equivalent)
A few drops of raspberry colour (optional)
Approx 200g icing sugar and cornflour to dust
Preheat oven to 80C/gas mark ¼ and line a baking tray with non-stick paper. Take 50g of the raspberries, dust with a little icing sugar and dry in oven for 2 hours. Remove and leave to cool.
Add the water, sugar and glucose to a large pan. Heat until the mix reaches 121C/250F on a sugar thermometer. Soak the gelatine sheets in cold water. Slowly whisk the egg whites in an electric mixer on a medium setting. When the sugar has come to temperature, take off the heat and add the strained gelatine sheets, mixing gently. Turn the electric mixer to the lowest setting, gently pour the hot sugar down the side of the bowl and into the egg whites while mixing, then turn up the speed to medium and continue to mix until cool.
Put the remaining raspberries in a bowl and mash with a fork. Pass through a fine sieve to obtain a thick purée. When the egg white is cool, add the raspberry purée and a little more colour if desired. Finally, add the dried raspberry pieces and pour the mix into a pre-greased non-stick tray approx 30x20cm. Cover lightly with greaseproof paper and leave in a cool place overnight to set.
When ready to cut, dust a large chopping board with a 50:50 mix of icing sugar and cornflour, tip out the marshmallow and dust the top liberally. With a large, clean knife cut into large squares and dust all together in a large bowl. Eat straight away or store in an airtight container, dusted well with the sugar mix, and eat within 1-2 days.