Nathan and Jenn Clark are wild for marshmallows.
Not the perfectly shaped grocery store blobs that last a lifetime, but the real, handcrafted deal.
Like doughnuts and macarons before them, marshmallows have been swept up in the artisanal food trend, made from scratch with flair the way so many trendy confections now are. Chicago's first marshmallow-only shop, XO Marshmallow Cafe + Wonderland, opened in June to much fanfare; its Harry Potter-themed Butterbeer marshmallows sold out rapidly last month.
And the Clarks were on the marshmallow scene long before that. They own Wondermade in Sanford (Jenn, 37, grew up in Safety Harbor and St. Petersburg), a specialty sweets shop that opened in 2012 and has since become known nationally for its 'mallows in hundreds of flavors.
There may be no greater person to spread the marshmallow gospel than Nathan, 39, who asked how much time I had when I posed this question to him recently: Why marshmallows?
"The thing that hooked me to even think about them is that they're so small and light and there's not many calories in them," Nathan said. "They are this perfect vehicle for flavor delivery. And they're just so much fun. It's unusual to find a food that everyone wants to love but hasn't experienced in its best form."
He is very passionate about this idea, that to eat a handcrafted marshmallow is to experience something completely new. That's how he and his wife first caught the marshmallow bug. It was a Christmas gift for her: a candy thermometer and a marshmallow cookbook. Something they could do in their spare time when their young kids (they have five) were sleeping. That first batch, a passion fruit flavor, changed everything.
"The first time you make a dish, it's never the best version of that dish," Nathan said. "But this was the best marshmallow we had ever tasted. That's when we realized we had only ever encountered mediocre marshmallows. And we soon found out that marshmallows were intended to be a much better thing than people normally experience."
They started giving marshmallows to friends, and one day, someone asked if they could buy some. From there, it was a year of ingredient sourcing, process refining and branding before they opened the shop.
"We launched it without any market research. We were honestly just so in love with really great marshmallows," Nathan said. "And it seemed so self-evident that the whole world would agree."
Now, they are known widely for their many flavors. This Christmas, Wondermade is debuting a vegan marshmallow, something the Clarks have spent three years perfecting. It's elusive in the marshmallow world, because marshmallows rely heavily on gelatin, which is made from animal products. (More about that in a bit.)
Bestsellers are Birthday Cake, Gold Champagne (which they flake with 24-karat gold) and Bourbon, which Nathan said has become a popular gift for the inscrutable man in your life.
"You can only give your dad so many ties. He only has one neck."
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I had heard about Wondermade before; most local folks who take an interest in artisanal marshmallows end up there. But finding a Tampa Bay confectionery that makes its own marshmallows was more difficult. There aren't many at all.
A tip from a local small-business owner eventually led me to Cake Affection, a St. Petersburg shop owned by Aaron and Ivy Lippard that is mostly known for its (notably delicious; they do a cooked European buttercream) cupcakes and custom cakes.
Marshmallows have been part of the menu since they opened in 2014.
On a recent visit to the shop, the Lippards had marshmallows in three stages: done and ready to be packaged, small white squares covered in confectioners' sugar, some dipped in chocolate, sitting on a parchment-lined pan; in the squidgy waiting stage, resting in a pan until they were ready to be cut; and various liquids just getting ready to come together in a KitchenAid stand mixer.
I watched Ivy work as she explained a couple of things about marshmallows.
First, the components: cane sugar, water, corn syrup, gelatin and egg whites. ("We're so anti high-fructose corn syrup, but we tried to make it without it and you don't get same texture, you don't get the same sponge," Aaron said.) That's really it, aside from flavorings like vanilla, the Lippards' standard flavor. The first three ingredients get mixed together in a saucepan and brought to a boil, then added to gelatin and whisked heartily for about 15 minutes to create a marshmallow flufflike consistency. That gets poured into a pan, set out for a couple hours, and voila, marshmallows.
Second: the sticky factor. Making marshmallows can be really gooey, so Ivy likes to coats all of her baking supplies with Crisco, to keep things moving along.
"I tell people to make them at home with their kids, even though it's messy," she said. "It can be a fun science experiment." Later, I think about how it is in fact miraculous that such a simple process leads to the oddly textured sweet.
Third: Gelatin stinks. Ivy told me this right away, saying she often has to apologize to customers for the stench when they're making marshmallows in the space that opens right out into the storefront. I figured she must be exaggerating, that it couldn't be that bad. Standing across the counter as Ivy added the boiling sugar mixture to the mixer, I still thought this. Then, finally, after a couple of seconds of whisking, it hit me. The Times photographer who was also there suggested dirty gym socks; all I have to say in my notes is this: "Wow, it really, really stinks."
The self-taught bakers do seasonal flavors and have experimented with things that turned out to be both hits and misses. Pumpkin spice? Not so much. Their most popular flavor is s'mores, which is dipped in chocolate and graham cracker and gets torched. Another winner? Unicorn, inspired by that infamous Starbucks latte: cotton candy-flavored marshmallows with swirls of color throughout.
I tried one of their s'mores marshmallows, Aaron torching the little guy just before handing it to me. It tasted like a marshmallow. But a really good marshmallow, satisfyingly chewy and not too sweet, the hardened chocolate and crushed graham crackers rendering an actual s'mores unnecessary.
I can see why the Lippards and the Clarks find the treat so intriguing. It's a blank canvas onto which creativity can be wildly cast. And it's like nothing else.
Nathan Clark finds marshmallows constantly engaging — uncooked, toasted, in s'mores, in steamy drinks. There are so many things you can do with them, and so many chances to recruit converts. People who think they don't like marshmallows often fall for particular flavors at Wondermade.
And Nathan is confident that the only thing separating the lovers from the haters is trying a handcrafted version.
"We haven't found anyone we couldn't win over with some form of a marshmallow."