Chef News

Anatomy of a Marshmallow with Tracy Dempsey of Tracy Dempsey Originals

See also: Tastemakers 2012: Tracy Dempsey See also: Tracy Dempsey's Caneles See also: Tracy Dempsey's Perfect Food Day

When you're cooking, it's all about a dash of this and a splash of that. But baking is another matter, an exact science. In this series, we're going behind the bakery case and into the kitchens of some of Phoenix's finest purveyors of sweets (and some savories). Fresh out of culinary school, Chow Bella contributor Mabel Suen will work with local chefs to learn their tricks for making perfect pastries, baked goods and desserts. Stay tuned for findings once the flour settles.

The Baked Good: The Marshmallow The Chef: Tracy Dempsey The Place: The kitchen at Arcadia Farms

"Plop it out -- and yes, that's a technical term," says pastry chef Tracy Dempsey with a laugh, explaining that a pan of former marshmallow goo patted down with powdered sugar sets up to look something like a cat-sized Tempur-Pedic mattress.

On a weekday afternoon, she and two baking assistants are busy at work in the bakeshop of Arcadia Farms, cracking silly jokes as they go. In the rented kitchen, they make rice pudding, gingerbread cookies, donut bread pudding and many other sweet and savory confections under the moniker Tracy Dempsey Originals.

Dempsey created her brand in 2009 as a business savvy solution for restaurants that can't afford to hire on-site pastry personnel, providing dessert programs as well as wholesale items and special occasion cakes all over the Valley. She made her first marshmallow right before the turn of the century in s'mores brownie ice cream while trying out for a pastry chef position.

"The magic of whipping air into water, sugar, corn syrup and gelatin gives them their special fluff. They're a neat little medium for different flavors," says Dempsey, who has done everything from pumpkin pie flavor and toasted coconut to lavender rose, jalapeno lime, and peppermint with candy cane pieces for floating on top of hot cocoa.

One thing's for sure -- homemade beats the hell out of store bought mallows, which evidently contain blue dye to make them bright white. And instead of cheap flavoring, Dempsey uses natural vanilla bean pastes, powder and extracts -- you can, too!

To Dempsey, the perfect marshmallow is light, soft, creamy and melts in the mouth. Made fresh, it is spongy, sumptuous and fluffy. As it ages, it cures from the inside out, developing a skin as it dries and becomes chewier -- some people prefer them this way, and the extra layer also helps them toast beautifully. Read on for her tips on how to make it all happen. The Tools: A sturdy pot for cooking syrup, a candy thermometer (Dempsey uses a digital infrared surface thermometer), a stand mixer with a whip attachment, a rubber spatula.

Terminology: Marshmallows are essentially made in the same style as a meringue but are set with gelatin instead of egg whites. Sugar is cooked to the soft ball stage. Dew point and humidity are important considerations when making candy. Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs moisture from the air. Do not make marshmallows on a rainy or humid day to avoid crystallization.

Technique/s: When you are cooking sugar, avoid agitating it directly as crystals will be reintroduced. Pick up the pot and swirl the mixture instead. Avoid messy piping by letting marshmallow mixture set up in a rectangular pan. To prevent sticking, oil the pan and dust it lightly with powdered sugar in the same manner you would normally prep a cake pan. Also lightly oil hands and dust them with powdered sugar to keep the mixture from sticking to you while handling it.

Dempsey demonstrates the stages of whipping cooked sugar syrup with gelatin into the mini miracle that is a marshmallow:

Tips & Tricks: Find a good base recipe and from there, flavor it any way you like after whipping to near completion. However, when introducing a fat like chocolate chips, watch for the temperature of the mixture or you might end up with soup! Coat cooled and cut marshmallows in powdered sugar, graham cracker crumbs or get creative with powders like nutmeg, cinnamon and cocoa to prevent them from sticking to each other. Soak used tools immediately to avoid a difficult clean-up.

Troubleshooting: Be very careful about cooking syrup to the correct temperature in the range of 244 to 248 degrees Farenheit. Dempsey recommends pulling it off sooner than later to avoid overheating via carryover cooking. If you have a bad batch that doesn't whip up correctly, be patient and give it more time. If it still doesn't reach the right consistency, instead of tossing it out, use it as a sauce or make rice treats by adding cereal.

Recommended reads: On Food and Cooking (her go-to for the science of sugar) and Marshmallow Madness

Try this at home: Classic Vanilla Marshmallows adapted from Marshmallow Madness at, Homemade Marshmallows from Bon Appetit, Homemade Marshmallows from David Lebovitz, Marshmallows from Cooking for Engineers.

See what else The Baker's Lab has examined: Anatomy of a Chocolate Chip Cookie with Brady Breese of Urban Cookies Anatomy of a Polvorón with Minerva Orduño Rincón of Muñeca Mexicana Anatomy of a Vegan Cupcake with the Sizemore Sisters of Treehouse Bakery Anatomy of a Brownie with Eileen Spitalny of Fairytale Brownies Anatomy of a Scone with Candy Lesher of Baci d'Amore Truffles and Scones

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Mabel Suen
Contact: Mabel Suen