How does a woman with five kids make a few hundred thousand marshmallows? Very, very well. World, meet Laura Dhuyvetter, the only woman in the history of time to have five kids under the age of ten and launch a company that is inarguably one of the world's most important gourmet s'mores creators. No, I am not making the part about five kids up—the kids are now 4, 7, 8, 10, and 11, but when Dhuyvetter began all of this, they were, and I emphasize and repeat for your jaw-dropping amazement, 1, 4, 5, 7, and 8. It all started one summer's day when she tore a recipe out of a magazine.
"With five kids, you're always looking for some fun new activity to do," Dhuyvetter told me when I talked to her on the phone for this story. "At the time, I didn't even know you could make marshmallows, but I decided to try it out because I've always been a huge marshmallow fan." When Dhuyvetter was growing up in southern California, her family always kept a fire pit in the backyard, she says, and s'mores were a frequent treat.
"Actually, when we were dating, my husband once gave me a bag of marshmallows, a box of graham crackers, and a package of chocolate chips—he knew they were my favorite thing. I can't say that first batch of marshmallows I made with my kids turned out great, but it showed promise. We just kind of played around after that, and my kids inspired me to try different flavors. We made some with mini M&Ms, sprinkles, all kinds of things. But I never thought this could be a business. I started giving them as gifts to friends and neighbors, but it's one thing when your friends and family are telling you: These are great! And another to imagine someone you don't know spending money on the thing. But I was just making them and making them, and then one day my husband came to me and he was like, What are you doing? We literally had Tupperware boxes on every counter just stuffed with marshmallows. I was like, Oh, we're having fun! We're making s'mores!"
The question, however, got Dhuyvetter thinking. "I had just seen a lady selling bread in Mankato at our local farmers' market, and I thought, Well. I wonder if I could." Dhuyvetter contacted the farmers' market manager and set a date. She waited until her parents came to town for a visit, to give her courage and help with the kids, and headed off to the market with her sweet treats. "The first person who came up and bought my marshmallows, I had to catch myself from saying, 'Are you sure?'" remembers Dhuyvetter. "And it just kind of bloomed from there."
As demand for the marshmallows grew, choices had to be made: If Dhuyvetter wanted to sell them anywhere but her local farmers' market, she had to work in a commercial kitchen, which would mean hours away from the family. At first she had the idea that her youngest, then a year and a half old, could nap in a portable crib while she made her marshmallows—but that didn't fly, as he woke up every time she ran the mixer. (Making marshmallows is largely an issue of whipping and gelling molten sugar.) Dhuyvetter ended up putting her youngest in daycare, the only one of her kids who went that route. She established a website, www.lcandy.com, and the business took off. While she started Laura's Candy offering caramel, brittles, and other sweets, it was the marshmallows that really sold like gangbusters.
Dhuyvetter's marshmallows are big, soft, pillowy things that come eight to a package. They look something like a pan of brownies, in that they're sold all together in a sort of loaf of precut squares. She makes a classic "Very Vanilla," which tastes—well, it's hard to compare a marshmallow to anything but a supermarket marshmallow, as marshmallows are inherently little more than sugar and air, but as marshmallows go, Laura's Candy's marshmallows go better: They're fresher tasting, cleaner, sweeter, purer—kind of like the difference between really cold, crisp spring water and water that's been sitting in a glass on the counter all day. They're both water, but you can tell the difference.
This difference probably hinges on Dhuyvetter's recipes, which she developed through lots of late-night tinkering. I can't tell you her trade secrets, mainly because I don't understand them, but I can tell you that she developed a special way to gel her marshmallows that doesn't rely solely on traditional gelatin. In addition to Very Vanilla, she makes an ever-changing array of seasonal and special flavors, including Almondy Amaretto, Jumpin' Jack Daniels, Pineapple Coconut, Cranberry Orange, Pumpkin, Perfectly Peppermint (perfect in hot chocolate), and a striking, black, Valrhona-cocoa-dusted Double Dark Chocolate.
The marshmallows usually cost $5 a package, though a very popular way to buy them (through lcandy.com and also amazon.com) is in a s'mores pack, in which the marshmallows are bundled with Laura's home-baked graham crackers and a Valrhona chocolate bar, for $19. The marshmallows are available in lots of area stores, including the Golden Fig market in St. Paul, Sage Market and Deli in Mendota Heights, the Wedge Co-op in south Minneapolis—you can find many more local spots via the Laura's Candy website.
One of my favorite things that the company makes is their graham crackers ($4.50). These things are fantastic: wheaty, substantial, chewy, cinnamon- and honey-touched—yum. Now I know why anyone ever cared enough about graham crackers to mass-market them. These little bun-brown beauties are about as different from splintering and salty store-bought graham crackers as a home-baked loaf of bread is different from packaged supermarket-brand sandwich bread.
I made a few s'mores with Laura's Candy ingredients, using just stovetop and toaster oven, and they were, in a word, fabulous—light, gooey, toothache-sweet, rustic, big, s'moretastic, s'moredelicious. These are the platinum standard of the s'more genre. Of course, not everyone loves s'mores, but thanks to the magic of the internet, that doesn't matter very much—the people who do love s'mores all find Laura's Candy. Laura Dhuyvetter now makes her marshmallows in batches of 2,000, and priority-mails them all over the country. There's even a ski resort in Lake Tahoe that offers the s'mores as a signature dessert around an outdoor fire pit.
To better integrate work and family, Dhuyvetter ended up building a commercial kitchen in a little outbuilding on her property. "After 11 years straight of hardcore diapers, you reach a point where you want to do the best for your kids, but you also want to do something for yourself," Dhuyvetter told me. "I turned 40 a few years ago, and when I did I had this feeling like: I would really like to do something more with my life. The kids definitely complain at times, especially right before the big candy holidays." The marshmallows are big at Christmas and Thanksgiving, not just as gifts, but for cooks who use them as ingredients in their signature yam dishes and in holiday pies.
"Sometimes I'll be in the kitchen till ten o'clock at night, and I go back and forth between the house and the kitchen every hour or two," explains Dhuyvetter. "But I think overall it's been good for them. I think they learned the value of hard work, and that sometimes in life it gets tough, but you make it through. When it gets hard I tell them, Hey, when I decided to do this I never knew what would come of it, but now I have to see it through and give it a hundred percent, because that's what it means to make a real commitment to something. I've learned a lot about myself, too, as a mom and as a business owner. Your patience, your tolerance level, your creative troubleshooting abilities—they can't be high enough. I've also had to learn: Some days you don't get done what you want to get done, and that's fine."
In the end, Dhuyvetter says, making marshmallows by the thousand isn't just a career that brings gooey joy to the s'mores-obsessed; it was the perfect answer to a bounteous life, the ideal way to add more to her more. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, but when life gives you kids, make s'mores.