Thursday, January 28, 2010

Confetti Marshmallow Squares

These humble treats are evocative of my childhood. While they are fairly common in Canada, I have never seen them here in the United States. In fact, I couldn't even find multicolored mini marshmallows in Manhattan so I bought a couple of bags on my last trip home.

The modern marshmallow was invented in France in the mid-19th century by whipping together egg whites, sugar, and root sap from the Marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis). This flowering, perennial herb was originally native to salty marshes in Europe, North Africa and Asia and was valued by the ancient Syrians, Chinese, Arabs and Romans for its medicinal properties. The Egyptians mixed Marshmallow root sap with honey and nuts to produce a treat thought to have been served exclusively to the Pharaoh.

The original process to make marshmallows was labor-intensive and expensive – limiting the market for the confections to the French elite. After technological advances, especially an extrusion process patented by American Alex Doumakes, mass production of marshmallows became possible. Over the years, the recipe has changed dramatically: root sap has been replaced with gelatin; egg whites are obsolete; and various forms of sugar, coloring and flavor have been added.

The average American consumes almost 1/4 pound of marshmallows per year. They are used in a variety of American desserts and snacks including Rice Krispies treats, s’mores, and fluffernutters.

Confetti marshmallow squares are easy to make and ideal for the young, beginner or untalented cook. They are similar to an American confection called 'church windows' which also contains marshmallows and peanut butter as well as chocolate chips, coconut and nuts.

Makes 25 squares

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup butterscotch chips
8 oz multicolored mini marshmallows


1. In a medium pot over lowest heat, melt butter and peanut butter. Add butterscotch chips and stir constantly until melted and smooth. The chips may take a while to fully melt but do not increase heat. Alternately, this can be done in a microwave.

2. Once melted, remove the pot from the heat. While cooling, butter a 9 x 9 inch baking pan. Line with wax paper and butter again.

3. Once the pot has cooled enough that you can comfortably touch the bottom, mix in the marshmallows until well coated with sauce. Marshmallows may melt if added to sauce that has not sufficiently cooled.

4. Spread mixture in the baking pan and use the back of a spoon to even out the surface. Place in the fridge for several hours or overnight. Using a sharp knife cut into 25 squares. Store in an airtight container for 2 weeks in the fridge or 3 months in the freezer; separate layers with wax paper to prevent sticking.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pineapple Carrot Cake

This is the second carrot cake recipe featured on this site – a follow up to my post on carrot cupcakes which describes the origin of carrots (in Afghanistan) and their use as a sugar substitute in medieval times. Predecessors to modern carrot cake were baked in a piecrust akin to pumpkin pie or steamed like a plum pudding.

Carrot cake experienced a decline in popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, it was fairly obscure until the second half of the twentieth century. In Britain it was revived by the Ministry of Food, which disseminated the recipe during the food rationing of World War Two. The signature cream cheese frosting is a modern American invention that appeared in the 1960s. Some attribute its newfound popularity to its perceived healthfulness since it contains no butter (which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol) and a significant amount of carrots; others dispute this given its sugar and oil content.

To address some of these concerns, this recipe has slightly less sugar and oil than the original, and is balanced by moist and sweet pineapple. The frosting for this recipe also uses an American Neufchatel which contains less fat than regular cream cheese without compromising the taste. Do not skip the coconut extract as it gives the cake an amazing fragrance. Carrot cake is versatile and you can add many of your favorite ingredients to it. I’ve included pineapple, coconut and walnuts; you could also add raisins, pecans, apples, cocoa powder, dried fruit or currants.

Serves 10-12


2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup vegetable oil (canola or corn)
1lb carrots, grated (about 3 large carrots)
12 ounces crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup shredded coconut (optional)
1/2 to 1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped and toasted (optional)

12 ounces cream cheese (up to 8 ounces can be American Neufchatel cheese (also called farmer’s cheese)), softened
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioner’s sugar or to taste
1 teaspoon coconut extract
sprinkles or chopped nuts for garnish (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and line two 8-inch round cake pans with parchment. Butter again and flour.

2. In a medium bowl mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice and salt. Set aside.

3. In a medium bowl, beat sugar and eggs using an electric mixer. Add vanilla and oil and mix well.

4. Add the flour mixture, continuing to beat on low speed.

5. Using a spatula, fold in the carrots, pineapple, coconut and walnuts.

6. Divide batter into cake pans and bake for 30-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool to room temperature before frosting.

7. To make the frosting, beat together all the ingredients by hand.

8. Unfrosted carrot cake freezes well. Wrap in wax paper, then in saran wrap, and place in an airtight container. Should last 3 to 6 months. The frosting can be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for several weeks or in the freezer for several months.

9. You have several options in terms of presentation. You could individually frost each cake and serve separately. Or you could frost one cake and place the second cake (top-side down) on top and then frost the top and sides. Alternately, you could make half the frosting, frost only one cake, and eat the other cake without frosting (a dusting of confectioner's sugar provides a lovely and light alternate). I recommend eating a frostless cake fresh; frozen cake is best served with cream cheese.