‘Pillows of delicious’
an American classic
Watch a grown-up bite into a s’more, and you’re witnessing a time-bending, out-of-body experience. As you spot leftover marshmallow on their face, fingers dripping with melted chocolate, and the inevitable smile breaking across their full cheeks, you’re seeing an adult being transported back to childhood memories of eating marshmallows around campfires with family and friends—or straight out of the bag.
With her handcrafted marshmallows—which she sells under the name Sweet Lydia’s—Lydia Blanchard is capitalizing on this phenomenon. Her flagship product, not surprisingly, is the s’more—that polyamorous marriage of chocolate, graham cracker and a molten marshmallow. Putting a contemporary twist on an American tradition that the Girl Scouts first introduced in 1927, Sweet Lydia’s occupies a space in the confections market that has both uniqueness and nostalgia in its corner.
In a cozy Lowell jazz club on a recent Tuesday night, a decidedly pro-s’more crowd is gathered to kick off the collaboration between Sweet Lydia’s and Akins Events, a husband-and-wife event design company. Laid out on two tables are just about every kind of s’more imaginable: s’mores bites, giant s’mores pops, s’mores wrapped around pretzels and, of course, the components to build one’s own s’more. Blanchard and the Akinses envision a world in which such marshmallowy spreads adorn wedding receptions, office gatherings and kids’ birthday parties. (That would be a fine world indeed.)
As soon as Blanchard gives us the green light, Martha Mayo makes her move. She quickly puts two graham cracker halves on her plate and tops one of them with a half a square of chocolate. Now, she’s applying a surgeon’s steadiness to roasting her marshmallow over a blue-flamed Sterno. Doing so takes Mayo back to campfires with family and friends near her childhood home in Maine. (Which Mayo describes as “a long time ago.”) Since discovering Sweet Lydia’s soon after its launch a couple years ago, Mayo and her longtime friend Catherine O’Donnell, who is with her tonight, have been fans.
“She is just so nice and so talented,” Mayo says of Blanchard. “Those marshmallows are so wonderful—so much better than the ones you buy in the supermarket.”
The tables of sweets, makeshift roasting station and pastel signage add up to a truly unusual yet visually and gastronomically enticing spectacle. Willy Wonka would be proud.
Blanchard, 28, could scarcely have imagined such a scene four years ago. Petite and soft-spoken, she didn’t set out to “occupy a space in the market” or “capitalize” on Americans’ nostalgia for marshmallows. She simply followed a recipe for homemade marshmallows. She doesn’t even remember where she saw the recipe, but she does remember being “blown away” by their superiority over the ones in the bag. “They just have a different texture and fluffiness, and they don’t taste chemically altered or stale,” she says. “I immediately started playing with different flavors.”
Soon, Blanchard’s friends and family members were receiving her fluffy creations as gifts, and the praise poured in. Her dad said she should seriously consider switching jobs. One family friend told Blanchard that after sending a basket of marshmallow treats to her estranged daughter, the two were speaking again. That was enough to lead Blanchard to throw caution to the wind, quit her job and began spending her days mixing, whipping and coating marshmallow-based desserts. With that, Sweet Lydia’s was born.
She borrows space from a Lowell coffeeshop, Brew’d Awakening, for her labor of love. Blanchard is understandably secretive about many specifics of her recipes. Loosely speaking, making marshmallows involves whipping a mixture of boiled sugar and gelatin or egg whites. The mixture is then warmed in the oven and cooled, rendering it officially a marshmallow. For her flavored marshmallows, she adds fresh fruit juices or purées to the mixture. “I tell people the recipe is a lot of sugar and a little magic,” she says.
From there, Blanchard’s customers’ creativity takes over. One regular customer scoops out the top of a brownie, stuffing it with a Nutella and a caramel or peanut butter marshmallow before toasting it. Another customer’s variation on a sticky bun calls for a plain marshmallow doused in cinnamon butter and wrapped with crescent dough before going in the oven. Blanchard says she hopes to publish a simple recipe book of marshmallow-based treats her customers have created.
Lowell resident Amanda Hosner says she often eats Sweet Lydia’s marshmallows straight up or, in cooler weather, melted into hot chocolate. Her favorite flavor? Peppermint chip, one of Sweet Lydia’s two winter seasonal varieties.
“I get them when I know I need some marshmallows in my life,” she says between sips of her s’more martini, the drink special in the bar that night. “They’re sinful and decadent, like little pillows of delicious.”
Only crumbs remain on Mayo’s plate as she begins to tell me about her lifelong love affair with marshmallows. It began, of course, around those campfires in Maine. Since discovering Sweet Lydia’s, she buys them for gifts and for herself, picking them up at the farmers markets where Blanchard spends many weekends. The ones Mayo buys for gifts make it home, while the ones she buys to eat herself often do not. Mayo has been known to roast them over the burner on her stove. Sometimes they make it into a s’more, sometimes not. “They’re great by themselves,” she says.
Besides being fluffier and tasting less processed, Sweet Lydia’s variety sets it apart from its jet-puffed counterpart. Blanchard makes 14 varieties of marshmallows, giving the sweet-toothed a mind-boggling 200 combinations to try. She says her personal tastes vary from month to month, but lately it’s been raspberry marshmallow with dark chocolate. The other distinction is shape: Blanchard’s marshmallows are square. It’s an obvious advantage, if you think about it: Square marshmallows make for a more structurally sound s’more.
Sweet Lydia’s will remain “all marshmallows, all the time,” according to Blanchard, who is perfectly content sticking with what she knows best.
“I like having a niche thing,” she says. “It’s easy to explain. Either you enjoy marshmallows or you don’t.”
That’s probably true. But as more and more people try Blanchard’s version, the don’ts camp—and supermarket marshmallows—just might disappear.
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to Edible Boston, as well as The Boston Globe, The Boston Globe Magazine and Culinate.com. His Edible Boston piece from the Spring 2011 issue was recently anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011, published in October by Da Capo Press. Follow him on Twitter: @thebostonwriter.