But try as we might we couldn't get it all in. Some of the bulky items were a big problem. We ended up having to make some tough decisions, between the Vita Brits and the marshmallows, the pita bread and the jam doughnuts, the muesli and the chips. I'm ashamed to say what won in each case...
Tomorrow, When the War Began, John Marsden
When I was little, our holidays were often spent on campsites. We would pile into the car, packed tightly with a tent, boxes of food, fishing rods and our togs (swimming costumes). Then we'd be off - on another adventure, as my stepfather would say - for a week on Stradbroke Island or Fraser Island, or at Lake Cootharaba. More often than not, our cousins or friends were in the car behind us. Once there, we'd set up our home away from home, each family's tent pointing towards a big communal cooking area, with space to light a fire and set up folding chairs and rugs for mealtimes. They were magical holidays. Most excitingly, we'd be able to eat food not normally on the table at home. As children who didn't often have sweets back in Brisbane, we'd look forward to the seemingly endless supply of marshmallows, toasted one by one over the fire.
Marshmallow toasting was my favourite camping ritual. We'd spend ages searching for the perfect marshmallow stick, before peeling the bark off the end, sharpening it to 3mm in diameter, and rubbing it clean(ish). You need one that's long enough to keep you safe from the flame, but short enough for you to retain control of the marshmallow; a fine balance to strike. Of course, if you're not close to fallen branches, a skewer could act as a very suitable stick substitute.
Once you've placed a marshmallow on the end of your stick, everyone has a different toasting preference. I vacillate. Occasionally I like dancing it in and out of the coolest flames at the edge of the fire, browning it only slightly. More often than not, though, I will stick it straight in the middle of the flames, just above the wood, and pull it out less than a minute later once it is bubbling and black. However you cook it, if you leave the marshmallow for long enough, the whole outer layer comes off in a crisp, caramelised shell. This first layer will inevitably burn your mouth slightly before you have to rush to capture the gooey innards in a second bite, in a bid to prevent them falling straight into the dirt.
It's just this that I imagine happening to the marshmallows that make it through the food cull above. In case this book is new to you (I know of no Australians my age who are unfamiliar with Marsden's most famous story, but the books are less prolifically read in other parts of the world), it features a group of seven teenage friends who discover, on returning home from a camping trip, that their small country town has been invaded by a foreign army. Tomorrow, When the War Began is the first of seven books; the group spends the rest of the series trying, with varying success, to fight against the invasion while their families and friends are held in camps.
It's an extraordinary series for young adults (and, I suspect, older adults too), giving just as much weight to the psychological effects of the war as to the physical fighting. I hadn't read it in years, but spotted a copy in Powell's Books when I was in Portland recently. I started to flick through it and was reminded of just how voraciously my sister Lucy and I had consumed the books when we were younger. She, her husband and I all instantly remembered the moment where the group chose marshmallows over Vita Brits, a choice we would have made too. We made immediate plans to toast marshmallows a couple of days later, on their roof.
A note: Marshmallows are, of course, better toasted over a burning flame in a campsite, but I have stood with a couple of them on a skewer over a gas hob too, as well as employing a blowtorch to do the job. So do read below for the recipe - don't spend the next five months waiting for summer and barbecues to reappear in the UK. These are also ideal in hot chocolate too.
Makes about 80 marshmallows
This is plenty for a camping trip for seven friends, or to give away as gifts this Christmas.
20g powdered gelatine
250ml cold water
400g caster sugar
170g glucose syrup
Pinch of salt
Food colouring gel (optional)
50g icing sugar
Stand mixer (or a good quality electric hand whisk and a heatproof bowl)
Medium sized saucepan
23cm square roasting dish or cake tin
1. Pour 125ml of the cold water into the bowl of your mixer, then sprinkle the powdered gelatine on top. Stir, then leave to sit while you get on with the rest of the recipe.
2. Put the caster sugar, glucose syrup and salt into the saucepan, along with the other 125ml water. Bring to the boil over a medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar at the start, but ensuring you stop before it begins to boil, or it will crystallize. Boil until it reaches 116C or 'soft ball stage', when the syrup will form a ball/clump if dribbled into a glass of cold water, and will hold its shape for a moment out of the water.
3. While you are waiting for this to happen (it always takes a while to start and then happens all at once, so don't turn your back on it) you can prepare the tin/tray. Rub a tiny amount of oil around it, then line the base and sides with aluminium foil. Mix the cornflour with the icing sugar in a bowl. Sprinkle a few tablespoons into the lined tin, then turn it around, tapping it, to ensure the powder covers the base and sides. Tip the excess back into the bowl for later.
4. Once the sugar syrup is at 116C, remove the saucepan from the heat. Turn the mixer onto a medium speed then slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl into the softened gelatine, ensuring you don't pour it onto the whisk, or you will end up with spun sugar. Once you have added all the syrup, turn the speed up to the highest, and whisk for around 12 - 15 minutes, until the mixture is very stiff, full of air, and the bowl has cooled. This 12 minutes is proper alchemy; I was sure mine hadn't worked, as it was a sloppy liquid for the first few minutes, but I kept beating and it puffed up like a big white cloud. Once it is stiff and thick, add the vanilla, and a little bit of food colouring if you'd like pink marshmallows.
5. Working relatively quickly, pour the marshmallow mix into the lined tin. Mine was a little tricky to manipulate at this point and didn't move into the corners of its own accord. To help it along, wet your spatula and push it, flattening the top as you do. Sprinkle the top with more of the cornflour and icing sugar mix and leave it to rest at room temperature for at least four hours, or overnight if that works for you.
6. The next day, cut your marshmallow block into cubes. Dust your knife with the cornflour and icing sugar between cuts to combat the stickiness, and roll the finished marshmallows in the powder too. Toss them around a bit to get rid of any excess (otherwise your marshmallows will taste of cornflour - as my first one did) and then toast them, drop them into hot chocolate or box them up between layers of greaseproof paper to give away as gifts.