by Margaret Cabaniss
Let’s be honest: No one likes Peeps. Not really, anyway; sure, they’re fun for their kitsch factor, or for the diorama potential, or for the slightly revolting science experiments — but no one is going to reach past a chocolate bunny or a Cadbury egg for a taste of that chewy, oversugared styrofoam. (Let us also not dwell on the fact that you could reuse the same Peeps year after year, and no one could tell the difference.)
Don’t get me wrong: I love a good marshmallow. The problem is, Peeps are not good marshmallows. But they are awfully cute — and as Easter is about nothing if not adorable candies in pastel hues, this year I decided to try making some of my own.
There are plenty of homemade Peeps how-tos out there; Martha Stewart has one recipe that calls for piping marshmallow fluff into tiny chick and bunny shapes, but I could see exactly how that would turn out in my inexpert hands…and mutant chicks and half-melted bunnies not being so adorable, I quickly moved on.
Fortunately, I already had a great homemade marshmallow recipe in my arsenal: At Christmas, I made peppermint marshmallows for my nieces and nephews, based on a recipe from the America’s Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook, and they ended up being a huge hit with kids and adults alike. I decided that, instead of trying to pipe my Peeps, I’d make a regular pan of marshmallows and use Easter cookie cutters to get the shapes I was after.
Marshmallows may seem like they’d be tricky to make, but they’re actually dead easy: You simply heat some sugar, corn syrup, and water to the soft ball stage (a candy thermometer is necessary here); add the sugar mixture and a dash of vanilla to some softened gelatin and beat the tar out of it in your mixer; then spread the resulting fluff into a greased 9×13 pan to set up overnight. You can get the full instructions, complete with video, at the America’s Test Kitchen Feed website here. The only change I made to the recipe was to not sprinkle them with powdered sugar before they set up; we want them to stick to the colored sugar later, so leave them undressed in the pan.
While the marshmallows are setting up, you can make your colored sugar — a much cheaper alternative to the store-bought kind, and you can make whatever shades you like. I scooped half a cup of sugar into four different freezer bags, then added four drops of food coloring to each bag, sealed them up, and scrunched the bags to mix. (This is a great job for the kids; my nephews loved pounding the bags into submission.)
A mix of regular and neon food coloring — the leftovers I had from dying eggs last year — gave us some great springtime colors (though if you’re looking for an alternative to regular food dyes, there are natural food dyes out there, too):
The next day, turn your block of marshmallow out onto a cutting board that you’ve sprayed with oil (to keep it from sticking), then simply spray your cutters and go to town. The marshmallows may need a little coaxing to come free (make sure you cut all the way through to release them), but the good thing about these is that they bounce back pretty easily. Just take your time and make sure your tools are oiled between each cut, and you’ll be fine.
Then comes the fun part: rolling them in the colored sugar. This stuff tends to get everywhere, so it’s a good idea to do a few marshmallows in one color before washing your hands and moving on to another, or to give one color to each kid (we ended up with a couple of tie-dyed flowers after some cross-contamination). Set the finished shapes aside on a cooling rack while you work.
We ended up cutting about 12 large marshmallows from one half of the pan; we could have kept going, but these guys were already pretty enormous, and the kids liked the idea of turning the rest into mini-marshmallows for tiny treats (which, frankly, their mother probably preferred). I simply diced the rest (including the scraps) into small cubes, and then we rolled those in the sugar, too.
If you’re just not a fan of the sugary crunch of regular Peeps, you can skip the colored sugar and toss them in regular marshmallow coating instead (which is much lighter and less sweet): Mix one part cornstarch and one part powdered sugar in a bowl, then toss a few marshmallows at a time to coat and shake off the excess in a strainer. You could still dye this mixture, too, if you wanted to keep the bright colors…or, if you wanted to get really fancy, you could even try dipping them in melted chocolate.
We stuck with the tried and true, though, and had a pretty impressive collection of marshmallows by the end of it: The large shapes we packaged in individual cellophane treat bags for friends’ and family’s Easter baskets, while the mini-mallows we grouped by color and stored in Ziploc bags. They’ll keep at least a few weeks in an airtight container — much less scary than the never-ending store-bought Peeps.
Let’s face it: This is still essentially sugar rolled in sugar — but it’s homemade sugar rolled in sugar! And they are, quite simply, awesome. Nothing wrong with a little indulgence on one of the happiest, spring-iest holidays of the year.
Images: Margaret Cabaniss