It’s easy to overlook homemade marshmallows, or not even know they exist. As Chicago cookbook author Shauna Sever writes in her 2012 book Marshmallow Madness, “I’d wager that your idea of marshmallows is a lot like mine was for most of my life: They come in little plastic bags from the grocery store.” Yet they’re fairly simple to make, with a handful of ingredients and usually three baking stages: blooming gelatin, crafting syrup, and combining the two with strong electric mixers to whip air into the syrup. The end result is a fluffy, buoyant candy that anyone can make with the right tools and courage around hot syrup. “I always tell people that making a flavor of marshmallow is like a science experiment,” Chicago Marshmallow owner Laura Murphy says.
The joy of making marshmallows often comes from the mix-ins, extracts, and swapped ingredients. And there’s no better innovation in practice than with local bakers and confectioners, who have crafted a complex world of marshmallows from egg-white meringues to gelatinized champagne to entire restaurants themed around puffed sugar. If you’re looking to transition from seasonal s’mores to holiday hot chocolate toppers, these are the seven Chicagoan stores and bakeries to visit.
Katherine Anne is a Palmer Square confectionery whose top seller is its marshmallows. Made from May’s Farm wildflower honey, her marshmallows are simple mixes of sugar, agave, honey, gelatin, and water — with a teaspoon of salt per half sheet of mallows. “I really do love to use salt to balance out the flavor,” owner Katherine Duncan says, and recommends home bakers don’t skimp on it like some mallowmakers. Katherine Anne’s marshmallows range from classics like salted caramel to tea flavors that balance well with the honeyed base.
As the cold creeps up, Duncan is preparing to serve a hundred hot chocolates a day, which she recommends pairing with the shop’s toasted marshmallows. Though their darker drinking chocolate is a good fit for marshmallows with a single flavor, Katherine Anne also introduces a new variety each month: September featured a rose and rosé marshmallow that incorporated an entire bottle of wine into the syrup, and rose petals whipped into the mallow. October will feature the ambrosia marshmallow, a take on the classic Midwestern Cool Whip salad that includes cherries, coconut, pineapple, and orange add-ins.
XO is a bright, exciting marshmallow cafe that recently opened an expanded location in Lincoln Park. The cafe offers everything marshmallow from frozen drinks topped with fluff, marshmallowy cereal bars, cookie s’mores, and even marshmallow decoration classes. If you want an even more local-flavored marshmallow, XO Marshmallow can help with their Malört marshmallows that always sell out at in-person events. The shop has even substituted pickle juice for water in its marshmallows. Its biggest winter offering is the advent calendar, featuring 25 marshmallows throughout December, dozens of which are advent-exclusive, like gingerbread, sour apple, or peaches and cream.
“Everyone on the team is involved in the flavor process, including our customers,” XO co-owner Lindzi Shanks says. “After we do our advent calendar, we send out a survey to all of our customers looking for suggestions, ideas, etcetera. And we take a lot of those into account when planning out our next year’s flavors.” Shanks emphasized how much XO encourages employees to play and joke around with flavor too — sometimes the customers love it (Cheetos), it doesn’t land (blueberry cobbler) or is divisive (pickle).
For the past six years, XO has been cutting hundreds of marshmallows with bench scrapers, but to smooth work at its Skokie production facility, it recently installed a custom-made marshmallow-cutting machine. Adapted from an industrial sheet cake cutter and featuring Ferrari-like butterfly doors, it works like a charm. “Now with a push of one button, we can cut an entire tray in 20 seconds,” Shanks says.
If you’re looking for another holiday marshmallow, get yourself a lump of coal from Nikki Darling Confections. “The lump of coal marshmallow is a black marshmallow made with jet black cocoa powder,” owner Evan Coben says. “It looks black but it tastes like a brownie.” The marshmallow is one of three in the confectionary’s upcoming cocoa kit pack.
Unlike Katherine Anne and XO, Nikki Darling Confections is a confectionary without a physical storefront — you can order online for shipped goods, or pick up in Westtown. Owner Evan Coben describes Nikki Darling’s focus as guided by the childhood nostalgia of browned campfire marshmallows, and the practical seasonal guardrails of summer and winter treats.
“Does it pair with graham crackers and chocolate, does it pair with cocoa and coffee?” Coben asks before investing in any mallow. If neither, she’ll happily defer that flavor to a shop like XO. Beyond the lump of coal, Nikki Darling began offering holiday marshmallows like cinnamon and peppermint in its hot cocoa kit to newsletter subscribers starting on October 1 and will open orders for the general public on November 1.
One of the most kid-friendly sellers is Chicago Marshmallow, known for its marshmallows shaped like hearts, stars, and Disney characters. Customers can purchase the confections at the Wednesday afternoon weekly market in Edgewater’s Edge of Sweetness (Chicago Marshmallow rents kitchen space from the bakery). Outside of the upcoming seasonal shapes (turkeys and pumpkins), owner Laura Murphy is practicing more complex shapes for birthdays and weddings, including Ghostbusters’ Slimer and miniature-tiered wedding cake marshmallows.
Other sweet picks
Others offer homemade marshmallows in smaller batches: Mindy’s Bakery offers egg-white vanilla marshmallows in packs of 10 to 12, while Margie’s Candy on Western sells chocolate-covered marshmallows that will soon change color for the holidays. If you want to make marshmallows in the old style, you can buy marshmallow root from the Dill Pickle Co-Op in Logan Square. Whether you’re purchasing mallows as holiday gifts, Halloween giveaways, or pillowy ways to upgrade your frappes and Watergate salads, you’ll have plenty of local options this Chicago winter.
Homemade marshmallows can be used for home baking, but their freshness alters their structure and melting point. “You can’t put them onto the boiler or in the oven for 30 minutes,” Katherine Duncan says. “They would really just melt into your sweet potato casserole.” To stay within the Goldilocks zone of gooeyness, Duncan recommends adding marshmallows at the end of a bake — a quick broil for a casserole or a s’mores bread pudding. Alternatively, both Shanks and Coben recommend air-drying marshmallows two days ahead of when you plan to bake them in dishes like cereal treats or cookies. Coben cites her toasted marshmallow blondie recipe as a good starter for fresh marshmallow baking.
“These are not grocery store marshmallows and whether you’re ordering from us or any of the other wonderful people in the Chicago area who are making marshmallows, it is still 10 times better than what you can get at the grocery store,” Shanks says. She’s often approached by people who say they don’t like marshmallows. “My first question is always, ‘But have you had a homemade one?’”