The Dad Cooks: It’s Time To Make The Valentines!

It’s February 13th* — time for us dads to start worrying about Valentine’s Day. Since it’s been especially cold and snowy for us this winter, the Wife has been fixing lots of delicious home-made hot chocolate. That gave me the idea to make her a batch of homemade marshmallows for Valentine’s.

I know it’s possible to make marshmallows yourself; I’ve seen the Wife do it. And, it turns out, there are lots of essentially identical recipes on the Internet.

Now, my first tip is to point out that it was only possible for me to do this because the kids and I were visiting Coach and Nana at their house while the Wife was elsewhere. I didn’t realize it when I first had this idea, or when I looked over the recipe, but being with the grandparents turned out to be essential. I probably would have attempted this if I had been home alone with the kids, but that would have been a mistake.

First, making marshmallows seems to require precise timing at a couple of stages. This demands that you pay close attention to your project. An astute reader of this blog will have noticed from earlier “The Dad Cooks” segments that this is not always possible when you have kids. Fortunately, we were at my parents’ house. I was not only able to complete most of the recipe while Nana played with the girls and Z napped but even had time to go to the grocery beforehand as well.

Second, as you will see, once you make the marshmallow goo, it has to set out for several hours. I don’t know about your spouse, but mine tends to notice things like a baking sheet covered in white fluff sitting out. Also, if your home is anything like mine, you’d be hard-pressed to find a level surface that’s both out of the reach of children and not already cluttered with junk.

So, once Nana and Coach have the children in hand, make sure you have all the materials you’ll need.

  • 3 packages of unflavored gelatin – No, strawberry Jell-O doesn’t count as “unflavored.”
  • 1 cup ice cold water – Water is freely available at Nana’s house, as is cold.
  • 1 and 1/2 cups of granulated sugar – Not a problem.
  • 1 cup light corn syrup – I grew up putting Kayro syrup on my pancakes but there’s none in Nana’s kitchen now.
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt – I don’t know what the difference is between kosher salt and regular salt but Nana has stocked both.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract – I’m certain she has vanilla.
  • 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar – There are four unopened boxes in the cabinet.
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch – Well, I was already making a trip to the grocery, so one more item is no big deal.

Everything else should be standard kitchen equipment, with two possible exceptions: a whisk attachment for your mixer (which you probably have but may need to look for) and a candy thermometer. Nana’s candy thermometer is in the exact same drawer it was thirty years ago when I last put it away. Upon testing, however, it doesn’t seem to work. I wasn’t aware that mercury could get so old and tired that it can fail to rise when things get hot but that seems to have happened. Since I’m actually about the same age as this particular thermometer, I’m not going to make a joke about that.

Inevitably, whenever I would ask my mom if she had a particular item, instead of just answering and telling me where to find it, she puttered around the kitchen and got it out for me. So now that most of the stuff has been assembled, it’s time to make a grocery run for the rest.

First, we need to figure out where to go to minimize the amount of time spent on this part of our endeavor. The closest grocery store to Nana’s house is a fairly small establishment. However, it’s also the newest grocery in town, having sprung up along the bypass in an effort to snag customers who were on their way to Wal-Mart. So we are now faced with that choice: press on to Wal-Mart or hope this place has everything we need?

Having stopped at the small grocery on the bypass, it will naturally turn out that they don’t have candy thermometers. All the other items — the gelatin, corn syrup, and corn starch — are standard baking requirements. Go ahead and get what you can. You’re making two stops now, anyway, and this will minimize the time spent wandering around in Wal-Mart.

You will despair of finding any of the items on your list until you hit upon the one aisle that has them all together. Hint: it’ll be the aisle with the brownie mix (it’s also the aisle that will only have bags of whole or chopped pecans when your wife sends you to get a bag of pecan halves).

But, wait! Having located what you’re after, you are now faced with a new problem. The recipe calls for “3 packages of gelatin” so you naturally grab three boxes off the shelf. Upon closer examination, however, each box says it contains four envelopes of gelatin.

So, is a “package” equal to one box or one envelope? Or are they all different things entirely?

Crap, I need gelatin and all they have is this "gelatine" stuff...
Crap, I need gelatin and all they have is this “gelatine” stuff…

You can try looking up other marshmallow recipes on your phone while you stand there in the grocery, but they’ll all ask for gelatin in packages. If you could find one asking for ounces maybe you could guesstimate how many boxes you’d need… Oh, well, “packages” probably means “envelopes,” though I think my mail carrier would disagree.

Now, it’s off to Wal-Mart for a candy thermometer, which is probably not the same as a meat thermometer. Note that this gives you the opportunity to pick up a Valentine’s Day card if you haven’t done that already, either.

Upon reaching the high-temple of mass consumerism you cannot find what you need until you wander around the store for approximately the same length of time it takes for single-celled organisms to evolve into creatures capable of surviving on dry land. Having successfully sacrificed that small portion of your life to Sam Walton, you will then be able to continue your quest.

My Wal-Mart actually had a model identical to Nana’s old candy thermometer, and it was one of the cheaper ones. Looks like Nana gets a replacement for Valentine’s Day once I’m done making the Wife’s marshmallows. Two birds with one stone!

Now that we finally have everything we need, let’s start makin’ marshmallows!

First, put the gelatin powder (however much you decided “3 packages” was) in the bowl of the mixer along with half a cup of water. The recipe I used specified “ice cold water” but I was too impatient to wait for it to get colder. Usually, I expect an instruction that specific is there for a good reason but I think my marshmallows turned out okay despite my disregard of it.

No, my baby didn't vomit into the mixing bowl. Unfortunately, it's just unflavored gelatin.
No, my baby didn’t vomit into the mixing bowl, it’s just unflavored gelatin.

While the gelatin is doing its thing in the mixing bowl, rummage around Nana’s kitchen until you find a small saucepan or pot. Into that you put another 1/2 cup of “ice cold” water (though we’re about to heat it up so I don’t know why the temperature matters), the granulated sugar, the salt, and the corn syrup. This is when you will have the realization that marshmallows are almost entirely just corn syrup. Given that the Wife has a corn allergy, I’m not sure why I thought this was a great idea.

Turn the mixture to “medium high” heat, which I always assume means somewhere around 6 or 7 on the dial. Put the lid on and wait three or four minutes. Then, uncover it and add the candy thermometer. You now must hover over the stove, watching for the temperature to hit 240 degrees Fahrenheit, whereupon you must remove the saucepan from the heat immediately. All the recipes I looked at were very specific about 240 being the magic number, not a degree more or less. I have no idea what would happen if you let this stuff stay on the eye an extra few seconds but I can only assume disaster would ensue.

See what I mean when I say that you don’t want this kids around when you’re attempting this?

Shoot, was I supposed to stir this stuff? Oh well, it seems to be mixed together now.
Shoot, was I supposed to stir this stuff? Oh well, it seems to be mixed together now.

Another reason is that long before the temperature reaches 240 degrees, this stuff will be a boiling pot of liquid sugar. Normally, if I’m doing a cooking project alone with the kids, I might let the girls help a little. Keeping them out of the kitchen is normally a full-time affair anyway. But I can think of few things less safe than children climbing on chairs next to a container of bubbling napalm.

Hot, sticky agony just waiting to splatter on you.
Hot, sticky agony just waiting to splatter on you.
Look closely and you'll see that candy thermometers can also be used for cooking drugs and sporting goods.
Look closely and you’ll see that candy thermometers can also be used for cooking drugs and sporting goods.

As soon as you’ve removed your pot of 240 degree corn syrup from the stove, carefully pour it into the bowl of gelatin while your mixer is on slow. Kick that whisk attachment up to high speed once you’ve got all the superheat syrup added and let it run while you turn your attention to the next phase of marshmallow production.

Not firm enough yet...
Not firm enough yet…

Combine the corn starch and confectioner’s sugar into a bowl. You’ll probably end up needing about a heaping spoonful more of each ingredient than the recipe calls for because it assumes you won’t waste any. The reality is that you will increasingly look like Tony Montana just tripped over you.

You now need a surface to eventually smear the goo the mixer is whipping up onto and the dimensions of that surface will determine the size marshmallows you’ll end up with. We’re making big, thick marshmallows here for plopping into a cup of hot chocolate, so go with a 13 x 9 baking sheet. Give the sheet a quick coating of cooking spray. Then, dump your corn starch/powdered sugar mix onto the sheet. The objective here is to end up with a fine coating of powder that covers every square inch of the interior of the sheet. I found the best way was to spread it around with a fork and then tilt the pan up and bang on it until the excess fell back into the bowl. This also had the effect of making it appear as though a drug mule had exploded in Nana’s formerly pristine kitchen.

The recipe I found anticipated that it would take about 12 to 15 minutes for the stuff in the mixing bowl to get whipped up into a properly stiff fluff while it cooled down, and that this amount of time was ample for preparing the pan. It took me exactly 14 minutes on my own. With the kids “helping” this would have taken 37 hours and required two trips back to the store to get more powdered sugar.

At any rate, don’t neglect the mixer and be sure you add the vanilla to it during the last minute or so of mixing. (It seemed odd to me that you couldn’t just add it right at the beginning of the whipping process, but once again I assume such an odd, specific direction is there for a reason and if you don’t follow it, you won’t get marshmallows.)

Looking good. Almost done.
Looking good. Almost done.

By now, you have a mixing bowl full of marshmallow fluff. Pour that goodness onto the baking sheet. You can give a spatula a blast of cooking spray on both sides if you need it to scrape out the bowl and smooth the goo down on the sheet. Don’t worry, there will still be enough stuck to the bowl and spatula for you to enjoy in a minute.

Now, “lightly dust” the top of the goo with the remaining corn starch/sugar powder. I don’t know what kind of kitchen tool or appliance one you’re supposed to do this dusting with. I thought that a sifter seemed like the best thing to use, but I’d already made a big enough mess and settled for spooning it out in clumps. Note, though, that you’ll need still more of the powder much later.


By “later” I mean “several hours later” because we are now at the stage where you just let the stuff sit out overnight. The next morning, your baking sheet will either be covered with a single, giant 13 x 9 inch marshmallow or you’ll find it upside down on the floor next to a very sticky child or pet.

Assuming your project survived, smooth over any tiny footprints in it as best you can and then cut it into 1-inch squares with a pizza cutter. Remember that bowl of powder I said you’d need more of later? No, you washed it out while you were hurriedly cleaning up Nana’s kitchen. So put a spoonful each of corn starch and confectioner’s sugar into a bowl (again) and roll each freshly-cut marshmallow in it to coat all the sides.

Ta-da! Now you have homemade marshmallows to give to your sweetie.

I found that this project was much easier than I’d anticipated. Really, other than the fact that it requires some precision in a couple of places, it’s not that difficult. Is it worth it, though? Well, if you’ve only ever had the store-bought kind you’ll be surprised how delicious homemade marshmallows can be. And if you’re crafting your sweetheart’s Valentine’s gift yourself in order to emphasize that personal touch, homemade candy is likely to go over much better than, say, homemade jewelry or homemade lingerie. Trust me.


*Yes, I realize that I’m posting this the day after Valentine’s Day. Hey, at least I got the Wife’s gift done on time!

Making an Evil Mastermind

Baby Z is in the process of morphing into Little Boy Z. He’s almost walking, kinda talking, and definitely exhibits a distinct personality with his own opinions and desires. For example, today he pointed at his nose and said, “Nosz.” Then at library story time, he stood next to me while I sat on the floor, his hand on my shoulder, and waved at some of the puppets. That’s some pretty cool stuff.

On the other hand, his developing personality is starting to show some disturbing trends.

I know that young children have to experiment and try things out as a way to learn about themselves and the world around them. On top of that, it’s easy to read too much into any single incident at this early age. Just because your little boy always points at pictures of a guitar doesn’t mean he’s going to be the next Johnny Cash any more than the fact that your little girl’s habit of constantly pulling her clothes off indicates a future career as a stripper. I know this.

Nevertheless, I’m starting to worry that I may be raising a future diabolical mastermind.

Take last night’s bath time for example, when I caught Z practicing his evil laugh. He was leaning forward, watching his reflection in the tub’s faucet, while saying, “Ha, ha, HA! Ha, ha, HA! Heh, heh, HEH!” I’m pretty sure he was rubbing his hands together, too. Seriously, for a kid who’s never watched a single James Bond movie, he was doing a pretty good impersonation of Ernst Stravo Blofeld. (A little hammy, but not full-on Dr. Evil.)

Am I being an alarmist? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Reading too much into his obsession with Lex Luthor?

Perhaps. But let me relate the incident that got my thoughts started down this track.

I had been sitting on the couch with Z in my lap, trying to read to him. Meanwhile, his sister, MeToo, had ridden up on her popper and started playing with some toys on the far side of the coffee table. Soon, though, she was drawn in by the book and climbed up beside me. At that point, Z slid down out of my lap, grabbed onto the edge of the coffee table, and began to slo-o-o-o-o-wly head over to MeToo’s toys.

(These are paid actors re-enacting the scene.)
(These are paid actors re-enacting the scene.)

Z was just starting to work his way around the corner of the coffee table when MeToo realized what was up. Her brother was about to play with toys! Toys that she’d been playing with a minute ago but had abandoned to go do something else! To a kid, of course, that’s the same as yanking it right out of her hands. MeToo took off like a shot, but she had to go the long way around the corner, circumnavigating the corn popper-mobile.

That’s when Z’s sinister genius revealed itself. He reached out to the popper, casually as if he were going to hold onto it for support, and pushed it into his sister’s path just in time for her to collide with it. MeToo tripped, and while she was wailing on the ground, Z calmly finished getting around the corner of the coffee table and reached the toys.


That was probably the moment when he realized that he needed to figure out how to laugh evilly.

It would have been easy to write the Corn Popper Incident off as mere happenstance if it wasn’t so perfect. Z’s canny use of his environment to thwart his big sister was executed with precise timing. You may scoff — it does sound awfully sophisticated for a mere twelve-month old — but I saw it with my own eyes.

I can only hope that his mother and I can guide Z to use his nefarious cunning for wholesome, worthwhile pursuits. But, honestly, have you ever used the words “cunning” and “respectable” to describe the same person?

Maybe instead I’ll just try to make sure that when he grows up and successfully holds the world’s nuclear stockpile for ransom he’ll remember to use his ill-gotten gains to set his dear, old Dad up someplace nice.