There is, for me, no greater seasonal pleasure than making homemade marshmallows—a batch for myself to enjoy with hot cocoa and a good book, and a couple more to pack for my friends as edible gifts. As I've said before, sometimes the best gifts are the ones you'd never buy for yourself; same thing goes for the foods you'd never take time to make for yourself. Because around the holidays, I find that we can sometimes forget to take care of ourselves and spend most of our energy caring (and shopping!) for others. I suppose that is the magic of Christmas, the spirit of giving and all that. But these marshmallows are a gentle, pillowy reminder during this hectic seasonal rush to slow down and take time for yourself: both in the kitchen, making them, and on the couch in front of the television, eating them.
This year I wanted to do something special: I'm an avid fan of black forest cake, that dark chocolate and cherry dessert resonant of kirschwasser (German for "cherry water"), which is a fiery brandy made from cherry juice. When figuring out how to add that flavor to my mallows without having to buy a whole bottle of kirsch or somehow extract the essence from out-of-season cherries, I found that a little almond extract lent a similar cherry-like note. —Eric Kim
In the bowl of a stand mixer, add gelatin and 1/2 cup of the water and let sit while you prepare the sugar syrup.
Bring 1/2 cup more water, sugar, corn syrup, and salt to a boil, and keep cooking until a candy thermometer reads 240°F. If you don't have a thermometer, then cook the sugar until it reaches its "soft ball" stage, which simply means that when you spoon a touch of the mixture into a cup of cold water, it should solidify into a soft, rollable ball. But if it merely melts into the water, then it's not cooked enough.
When the sugar syrup is ready (be careful, it’s hot!), slowly pour it into the bowl with the gelatin, mixer on low, until incorporated. Then, with the mixer on high, whisk for a good 15 minutes. Your syrupy mixture will fluff up significantly, like a shiny meringue. After 15 minutes, add the vanilla and almond extracts and whisk until fully incorporated.
Generously dust an 8x8-inch aluminum foil tin with the confectioners' sugar (I like to do this over the sink). Decant the marshmallow fluff into the prepared pan, then dust the top again, generously, with more confectioners' sugar. Let sit uncovered in a cool, dry place overnight; the longer it sits, the dryer it'll get and the easier it'll be to cut later.
When dried out, carefully turn the marshmallow block out onto a cutting board and cut into 16 large cubes (4x4), dusting each side with more powdered sugar to prevent stickage. Dip each mallow into the melted chocolate and lay on a parchment-lined sheet pan, topping each with a cherry. Transfer to the fridge to set until hard, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Bag finished marshmallows as gifts for friends, or as midnight treats for yourself throughout the week. To store, keep covered or bagged in the refrigerator for a few days (because of the cherries); if sending in the mail, leave cherries out.
Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.