This story is a product of Heavy Table’s first Listening Session, underwritten and hosted by the Lakewinds Food Co-op. On May 23, we interviewed 15 local food artisans over the course of eight hours, with a goal of taking a snapshot of the vibrant Minnesota food scene.
Locally made North Mallows are a far cry from the Jet-Puffed standard marshmallows that dominate local store shelves. They’re denser, they’re more fully flavored, and while they brown and soften under the assault of a campfire, they don’t ignite or even blacken. They can take a fiery blast and remain whole and intact. On a s’more, they’re a richer, bigger presence than a standard marshmallow, and North Mallow’s flavors (chocolate chip, caramel swirl, vanilla bean) are clean and bold but not overpowering or unbalanced. We sat down with North Mallow’s founder, Mike Nelson, to talk to him about what goes into building a better mallow.
HEAVY TABLE: Where does your marshmallow story begin?
MIKE NELSON: For 10 years, I was a camp counselor for the YMCA at Camp Kici Yapi in Prior Lake. I did many, many s’mores. I was always the guy to light the bonfires. But I was also the guy who hated when the marshmallows caught on fire. I would spend minutes way above the fire to get mine nice and brown.
HEAVY TABLE: You spent some time teaching, and then you jumped into business with North Mallow. Why?
NELSON: I wanted to get into the food world. I saw there was a move in that world back to good, natural products. There was the chocolate phase, where people shifted from Hershey’s to gourmet bars, and to popcorn like Angie’s — all these different products going to gourmet.
I did some research on the market size of marshmallows and saw there was some flexibility. This was three years ago. So I started making my own marshmallows, and a friend of mine wanted to do an event with my marshmallows, so I looked online and discovered this idea of a s’mores bar.
HEAVY TABLE: What’s your make procedure for North Mallows?
NELSON: It takes a long time. One of the most common questions I used to get was, was I literally taking Jet-Puffed marshmallows, melting them down, and adding flavor?
You can make from-scratch marshmallows. You mix water, sugar — most people use corn syrup; I use agave nectar — and you boil them and add gelatin to it. We use kosher beef gelatin. You mix it, pour it into a mixer, add more sugar, fluff it into a meringue almost, and then you add the flavor. Then you pour it in a pan right away, spread it out, and then let it set in a refrigerator or freezer. Then you go back and cut them. It’s an hour of making and an hour of cutting, with cooling time in between. We only have a 60-quart mixer. We make about 1,400 marshmallows in a batch.
HEAVY TABLE: Your marshmallows cost a lot more than the standard competition: something like $8 a box versus around $2 a bag. Is that a challenge?
NELSON: When you look at chocolate, it’s a similar difference. A Hershey’s bar is 99 cents, but a good bar is $5 or $6, or $10. People care; they read the back of the box. We’re a local product using quality ingredients. A few people say it’s too expensive, but most people see the value.
HEAVY TABLE: In terms of taste, can you put a finer point on that value?
NELSON: It’s a smooth texture. You actually get flavor. Jet-Puffed uses artificial marshmallow flavoring, whatever that means. They use blue dye No. 1 to make it whiter. For our chocolate chip flavor, there’s a great chocolate taste, and there’s chocolate chips on top and chocolate chips in the middle. We use organic vanilla, and we make our own caramel. Most commercial sauces have corn syrup in them, so we make our own caramel to make sure it’s up to our standards.
HEAVY TABLE: A lot of artisanal products bank on exotic flavors to set themselves apart. Is North Mallow heading that way?
NELSON: I’m trying to stay close to the classic flavors. That said, mocha is crazy to people! It’s not that crazy, but I have to understand my market. For us, we’re going to go coffee, peppermint, the craziest one might be like pumpkin spice — really well-known flavors.
North Mallows are available at Hy-Vee Oakdale, The Wedge Community Co-op, Lakewinds Food Co-ops, Cooks of Crocus Hill, and other area retailers.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for readability.