Among confectionary, the marshmallow gets little respect. Nobody just eats a bag of those chewy, sugar-flavored white blobs; at best, marshmallows get invited to a party already in progress -- rounding out s'mores or topping some sweet-potato casserole.
Debbie Steinberg and Chris Momberger, of Creighton, are working to elevate the marshmallow to its own deserved stardom. The pair recently started Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory, offering hand-crafted, intriguingly flavored marshmallows.
The first thing one notices about the Factory marshmallows is the shape -- these are good-sized cubes, not the usual uniformly rounded cylinders. The marshmallows look light -- and, indeed, are much more airy and moist than store-bought varieties.
You can't beat the flavors. Beyond the basics (vanilla and chocolate) are tastes both classic and cutting-edge. If a Thin Mint cookie became an angel, it might resemble the chocolate-mint marshmallow; orange Creamsicle perfectly duplicates the frozen treat. Banana is good, but bananas Foster, with a dusting of graham crackers, is even better. And speaking of graham cracker, Steinberg bakes them from scratch, before adding marshmallow and chocolate for the s'mores variety. ("Pop them under the broiler for a couple seconds," she recommends, for that campfire toasting.)
Not surprisingly, the two most outrageous flavors have generated the most positive feedback. (The pair has been test-marketing new marshmallows at their local watering hole.) A maple-favored marshmallow covered in real bacon bits is like a sweet-and-salty breakfast reduced to a three-inch fluffy cube. Then there's what is surely the world's most bad-ass marshmallow, flavored with the world's hottest pepper, ghost chili. (For you food nerds, the ghost pepper tests at over 1,000,000 Scoville units; Tabasco sauce is 5,000.)
I tried a piece not much bigger than the head of a pin, and found that teeny morsel satisfyingly, but not overwhelming, hot. Momberger explained that the sugar helps cut the capsaicin (what makes peppers hot), but this is still a marshmallow for the gastronomically gutsy.
Making candy is as much science as art -- even as simple as marshmallows are: sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, water, salt and flavoring; heated, whipped and poured into molds. But experimenting is part of the fun: The Factory welcomes suggested flavors, and is constantly working on new ones. In its sights, a beer-flavored marshmallow made with hops and malt. Sounds like a perfect chaser for that fiery ghost-pepper one.
The Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory's stall at the Pittsburgh Public Market (Smallman Street, between 16th and 17th, Strip District) opens Nov. 6. Mail orders anytime at email@example.com.