From the archives: The curious history of why Americans love s’mores
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 26, 2010.
Sylvester Graham would roll over in his grave if he knew about s’mores.
The 19th-century minister and diet reformer who invented graham crackers dedicated his life in the early 1800s to teaching “Grahamites” about the health and moral benefits of a meat-free diet of simple, unseasoned food. Roasted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched between two of his namesake crackers is exactly the kind of indulgent food Graham preached against, but despite his healthful lifestyle, he died at age 57, several decades before that first curious camper took a bite of what has become summer’s sweetest guilty pleasure.
Memorial Day kicks off the s’more season, when millions of Americans will tear into bags of marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers, forage around the campsite for just the right roasting stick and debate among themselves how much char is too much to make the perfect s’more.
No one knows for sure who first thought to heat up marshmallows over an open fire and squish them with chocolate and crackers, but the first recipe for a “some more” — as if you needed one — appeared in a Girl Scout handbook in 1927. It’s likely that people first started making them in the late 1800s, which is when all three ingredients were first readily available.
Around the same time Graham was spreading his health food gospel, French candymakers on the other side of the Atlantic discovered how to create a fluffy white sweet confection from the sap of the mallow root, which had long been used to treat respiratory ailments and sore throats. By the time the cylindrical-shaped puffs were invented a century later, the natural mallow was replaced with gelatin. (Another reason Graham would disapprove: Gelatin is made from animal parts.)
No s’more is complete without chocolate. Even as Americans’ palates for different varieties of chocolate has matured, Hershey’s milk chocolate remains the standard.
Upgrading to artisan chocolate bark or bars, including those from local companies such as Fat Turkey, Viva Chocolato, Arte y Chocolate, Innocent Chocolate or Chocbite, is an easy way to spiff up your sandwich, or you can replace regular chocolate with candy bars like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Kit Kat bars. Bored with graham crackers? Skip them altogether and use Oreo or Nutter Butter sandwich cookies instead.
But for a really lavish treat, try making your own marshmallows and graham crackers. Marshmallows are slightly trickier to make only because they require heating a mixture of corn syrup, sugar and water to a soft ball candy stage (about 235 degrees), but after you’ve tried a homemade one that tastes like a Mexican vanilla-flavored cirrus cloud, the store-bought ones seem like hockey pucks.
Not a fan of vanilla? Swap it with another flavor extract like orange, lemon, coconut or even peach. (Exotic extracts are available at cake supply stores or online.) With just a few drops of food coloring, you can make marshmallows of just about any color of the rainbow.
Store-bought graham crackers today aren’t exactly the health food Sylvester Graham intended them to be, and your homemade ones, even those made with whole wheat flour, won’t be either. True graham crackers are made with graham flour, a combination of fine-ground white flour and coarse-ground wheat bran and germ, but most recipes simply call for whole-wheat flour and a lot of butter and brown sugar. Unlike the dry, stick-in-your-teeth crackers from a box, homemade grahams have a delicate texture, thanks to the butter, and a complex, slightly savory flavor which offsets the sugary overload from the marshmallows and chocolate.
A warning about roasting homemade marshmallows: Because they don’t contain the stabilizers found in packaged marshmallows, they heat up and melt much more quickly. They are likely to fall off your stick before catching on fire, but even lovers of charred marshmallows won’t mind when they lick airy, warm marshmallow cream off the side of a homemade s’more.
You can make s’mores indoors on a gas stove, in the microwave, inside a toaster or even on a grill (wrapped in aluminum foil, Hershey’s suggests), but playing with fire is half the fun of making them. A handful of restaurants and coffee shops, including the downtown coffee shop Halcyon, offer tabletop-contained fire units for roasting marshmallows for s’mores, but it’s hard to beat the smoke-in-your-face challenge of roasting them in a real fire.
Hot coals provide a more even and often hotter heat than the flicking flames above the wood, but make sure you have extra marshmallows on hand in case you drop some in the fire. Long metal kebab skewers are good for roasting, as are sticks, of course, but avoid wire coat hangers, which are often coated in plastic.
S’mores aren’t exactly a sophisticated dessert, but they’ve made their way to the White House. At the state dinner for Mexico’s president last week, chef Rick Bayless served chocolate-cajeta tart with toasted homemade marshmallows, graham cracker crumble and goat cheese ice cream for the president and his dinner guests. No roasting stick required.
3 pkg. unflavored gelatin (a small box, such as those sold by Knox, usually contains four packages)
1 cup ice cold water, divided
12 oz. granulated sugar, approximately 1 1/2 cups
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with either a whisk or beaters, pour a half-cup of the water and stir in the gelatin. (It will congeal while you heat the sugar mixture.)
In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Place over medium high heat, cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover and continue to stir and cook for approximately seven to 10 minutes until the mixture reaches soft ball candy stage, between 235 and 240 degrees. (Don’t guess on this step. Use a thermometer, preferably a candy thermometer.) Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.
Turn the mixer on low speed and slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all the syrup, increase the speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes white, thick and lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add vanilla during the last minute of whipping. (You can substitute other extracts, but note that some, such as peppermint, are stronger in flavor and won’t require the full amount. This is the stage where you also can add a few drops of food coloring.)
While the mixture is whipping, prepare a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan. In a bowl, sift together confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch. Spray the pan with nonstick cooking spray and add the sugar and cornstarch mixture. Shake the pan from side to side to move it around and coat the bottom and sides of the pan. Return the remaining mixture to the bowl for later use.
After the sugar syrup and gelatin has formed an airy cream, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan. Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. (You might need to re-sift the combination to ensure even coating.) Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallows to sit, uncovered at room temperature, for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
When you’re ready to cut the marshmallows, loosen the sides and bottom of the solidified mixture with a spatula that has been dusted with the sugar and cornstarch mixture. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board that has been dusted with sugar and cornstarch mixture and cut into squares using a pizza wheel or a long serrated knife dusted with the confectioners’ sugar mixture. Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining mixture, using additional if necessary. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.
- Adapted from a recipe from Alton Brown’s Food Network show ‘Good Eats’
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature (reduce salt to 1/2 tsp. if using salted butter)
1/4 cup dark or light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup honey
Sift together all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon in a bowl.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar and honey on medium until well-combined, about a minute. Add half of the dry ingredients and combine fully before adding in the rest.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick baking sheet such as Silpat or parchment paper.
Put half the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface and roll into a rectangle between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick. Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into squares or rectangles and use a spatula to transfer them to the baking sheet. Gather the scraps and add to the chilled dough. Using a fork, pierce each rectangle or square with two rows of holes, and place the pans in the oven. Bake for 13-16 minutes or until the crackers are golden brown. (They will darken slightly as they cool.)
Using a spatula, move the crackers to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with the second half of the dough. Makes about three dozen crackers. Stored in an airtight container, the crackers will keep for about a week.
- Adapted from ‘The Craft of Baking’ by Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox (Clarkson Potter, 2009)