This time a year ago we were in North Devon. We stayed in a pretty little village called Chittlehampton near Barnstaple, although Jim insisted on calling it the Shire. I think this was mainly influenced by the fact that the cottage (which he called Bag End) had very small doors and low ceilings which meant that the only place Jim could stand up straight was on the stairs, he had to shower on his knees and bend nearly double to get through the doors. I, on the other hand, found the cottage perfectly proportioned and very cosy with the added bonus that I could reach all the cupboards and fittings very easily.
We had a good time, helped enormously by the fact that the village had a great pub called the Bell Inn, which served good food and had an extensive gin list, including a new one on me, Wicked Wolf of Exmoor, a small batch-made spirit made in the wilds of Exmoor. The village also boasted a post office and shop which sold locally-made cheddar and clotted cream which you had to request from behind the counter and was spooned into a unmarked plastic tub for you to take home with you.
I got baking as soon as we got home. Which of course meant we had to have the following 3 arguments:
- is it scone rhyming with cone, or scone rhyming with gone?
- should scones have sultanas in?
- jam then cream, or cream then jam?
I’m not even going to try and answer the first question as I know it raises considerable agitation with certain people. I heard that the Queen says scone rhyming with ‘gone’, so that is some guidance I guess. I like sultanas but Tommy doesn’t, so we tossed a coin and he won. The Cornish tea has jam and then cream on top (which I prefer, with apologies to my Devonian mother-in-law) and the Devon cream tea should have the cream on first. What a minefield to pick your way across for a tea-time treat. The clotted cream was delicious, which was the main thing.
After a short break, I usually feel energised to get back into the creative side of cooking, so I decided to tackle something I have been meaning to try for ages. Marshmallows. I had bought a sugar thermometer a while ago but it was still in its packet and buried at the back of a drawer. But I found it and got to work.
The ingredients are really quite simple: white sugar, liquid glucose (which you can find in most supermarkets with the baking ingredients), water, gelatine leaves, egg whites and vanilla. The only tricky bit is getting the temperature of the sugar correct, but the thermometer takes all of the guess work out of that. The sugar has to be heated to the hardball stage. When I told Jim I was going to play hardball with the sugar he hurried out of the kitchen in case it turned violent.
I used a James Martin recipe for my first attempt and it worked really well. The main thing to bear in mind is that it takes quite a while for the sugar syrup to get to the right temperature. I used my digital thermometer as well because I didn’t trust the analogue one, but it worked okay. It is important to be very careful with hot sugar, don’t ever touch it with your fingers and use a good sturdy Pyrex jug to pour it onto the egg whites slowly. This is not a recipe to do with small children I would say. The other thing is that you will have to wash everything in very hot water afterwards as it is the only way to deal with the hardened sugar.
But it really wasn’t difficult and the results were absolutely delicious. Soft, pillowy, melt-in-the-mouth, more a texture than a flavour, and I felt inordinately proud of myself when they were done. If you want to have a go, here is the recipe I used:
450g granulated sugar
1 tbsp liquid glucose
2 large free-range egg whites
9 sheets gelatine, soaked in 140ml water
1 tsp vanilla extract
vegetable oil, for greasing
5-6 tbsp icing sugar, for dusting
5-6 tbsp cornflour, for dusting
- Soak the gelatine leaves in 140ml cold water in a small bowl.
- Place the granulated sugar, glucose and 200ml of water into a heavy-duty saucepan and bring to the boil.
- Cook over a medium-high heat until it reaches 127ºC or the hard ball stage on a sugar thermometer. This could take up to 15 minutes.
- Place the egg whites into a very clean grease-free bowl and whisk to firm peaks. An electric whisk or stand mixer is best as there is a lot of whisking!
- Add the soaked gelatine sheets and water to the hot sugar syrup carefully. Stir through until dissolved, then pour into a heatproof jug.
- Continue to whisk the egg whites, then pour the sugar syrup onto the egg whites, whisking all the time until the whites are shiny. Try not to pour the syrup directly onto the whisk attachments but rather down the side of the bowl.
- Add the vanilla extract and continue to whisk at a medium-high speed for at least 5 minutes, but it may take up tot 10 minutes. The mixture needs to be thick enough to hold its shape on the whisk.
- Lightly oil a shallow 30x20cm baking tray and dust the tray with some icing sugar and cornflour. Spoon the marshmallow mixture into the tray, smoothing the top with a palette knife.
- Place in the fridge for at least an hour to set.
- Dust some more icing sugar and cornflour over a board or clean work surface, use a palette knife to loosen the edge of the marshmallow, then turn it out onto the dusted work surface.
- Cut into squares and roll in the icing sugar and cornflour to coat well and then store in an airtight tin or jar. Serve with chocolate sauce or fruit coulis for a yummy dessert .