Tenth Thing: A watched pot never boils

Hard to believe we’ve reached number ten already – how time flies, well, except for when you’re waiting for something to happen.

I don’t know if Northern lasses have a reputation for being particularly impatient, but the phrase ‘a watched pot never boils’ is widely attributed to the Victorian novel, Mary Barton – A Tale of Manchester Life by Chelsea-born Elizabeth Gaskell. However, in the context of the full quote, we see that it’s actually less about impatience but rather about keeping calm and carrying on:

“What’s the use of watching? A watched pot never boils, and I see you are after watching that weathercock. Why now, I try never to look at it, else I could do nought else. My heart many a time goes sick when the wind rises, but I turn away and work away, and try never to think on the wind, but on what I ha’ getten to do.”

Wise words indeed.

When it comes to getting on with things, there’s nothing like cooking to focus one’s attention otherwise things stick, burn or ruin. That said, I’m more the school of Ready Steady Cook than The Great British Bake Off. Technical challenges are not for me, I prefer to see what’s in the cupboard and throw something together without a recipe. It usually it works. Certainly any recipe that involves separating eggs and beating the whites to a stiff peak; using yeast to make it rise; or boiling it with a sugar thermometer to a precise temperature, fills me with dread.

So it was with some trepidation that I started to make marshmallows. Ever since reading this recipe, over 3 years ago, I’ve wanted to try but never quite gathered the courage. But I can report that, in fact, it wasn’t so bad. Sugar boils much more slowly than I realised (perhaps I was watching the pot too much) but this allowed me time to prepare the tin and steep the gelatine. (I didn’t use all natural beetroot to colour mine, but instead cautiously added some artificial blue colouring… next time I’ll try more to get a more potent result. I also added a little vanilla extract to flavour them as these days, it’s not so easy to find Althaea officinalis root.)

Beating the egg whites turned out to be my favourite part: it seems like magic when they turn from clear, sloppy gooeyiness into fluffy white peakiness. It’s all about a scrupulously clean bowl, apparently.

I had to exercise patience while the mixture set in the tin and possibility ought to have left it a bit longer as getting them out was a bit of a sticky hassle.

But the true test of a good marshmallow is surely its toastability. I will make these again when barbeque season starts but even over the gas hob flame, they toasted to perfection. Yumsk.

Tools / special requirements: sugar thermometer, electric whisk, metal pan for boiling sugar (non-stick will make it crystallise)

Time taken: 60 minutes active work, plus a couple of hours to set, depending how cool your cool place is.

Things learned: Elizabeth Gaskell spent some time in Newcastle upon Tyne with the founder of the Literary and Philosophical Society, Rev William Turner.

Satisfaction (1-10): 10 for 10

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