Before we start talking about torching up our Peeps, there are a couple of things you should know: 1) there’s a lot of trial and error, and 2) someone will probably yell, “What the hell is wrong with you? You keep away from my kids, sicko!”
But you can calm them down, because you’re just doing it out of love: Fire makes the sugar coating on Peeps get amazing, turning it into a glassy shell, all toasty and caramelly, a crackly crunch surrounding the soft, puffy marshmallow inside. Suddenly, everyone’s favorite candy Styrofoam tastes sophisticated! So you know in your heart of hearts that you’re subjecting these adorable critters to a flaming crucible because you just want them to be all they can be. OK, so that does sound kind of sick. Whatevs.
Anyway, as with crème brûlée, the magic is in the sugar and the heat. When dull, simple sugar gets hot, it breaks down and reforms on a molecular level, creating compounds that give us the nutty, buttery flavors of caramel. And as it cools, the liquid sugar turns into a new, solid crystal structure, which gets harder the hotter the sugar gets and the more it’s allowed to sit still as it cools. (This is why hard candies like Jolly Ranchers and taffies can be still mostly sugar but have such different textures.)
So, for both crème and Peeps brûlée, the trick is to get the sugar coating hot enough to caramelize without cooking the custard or marshmallow underneath. If you have a brûlée torch, you can get flame serious enough to pretty much instantly melt and caramelize the sugar before the heat penetrates into the Peep itself and makes it puff. Check out this awesome picture, even though I’m pretty sure they’re using a lightsaber, not a torch available on this planet.
But for those of us without pinpoint flamethrowers, you can still be in business as long as you have a gas stove and a skewer.
Peeps (I have a slight preference for the bunnies, but the chicks work too.)
Special equipment: fire; skewers or thin, wood chopsticks; nonstick pan
- Skewer a Peep. The thing is, flat surfaces give you the best results, because they can heat and caramelize relatively evenly, which is why I like the bunnies. But a chick Peep’s head, for instance, is just going to burst into flames before the rest of the body gets hot enough. Which, granted, is kind of awesome to look at, but not so much to eat. So I prefer the flatter bunnies, and I go in with the skewer between the ears — so it looks like a Peep lollipop — to toast their wide bellies, and because this way I kill the Peep instantly. Er, ignore that. And the chicks do have great, flat bottoms, so I skewer them lengthwise, like so:
- Turn your flame on high.
- Start waving your Peep over the fire, letting the flames touch the surface of the sugar. After a couple of seconds, take a look: What you want, as much as possible, is an even, light brown caramel. Now, realistically, that’s not going to happen. The edges are probably going to get darker, the middle might not brown at all, and, if it’s taking too long and you’re starting to cook the Peep, it will start to puff up and deform. It’s all OK, just know that your bunnies are going to start looking like spacemen with oversize helmets and the chicks are going to start looking like puffy sneakers from the ’80s. Just keep waving the Peep over the flame, check on it every two seconds or so, and make sure a few things happen: you get some caramelized browning, the sugar on the parts that don’t brown at least turns glassy-looking, and you DON’T BURN IT. Blow out any flames right away, and if it’s starting to get dark brown, stop, unless you really like the bitter taste of char. If you’re working with bunnies, flip and caramelize the other side. If you’re using chicks, just kind of give the sides a perfunctory go at it, but pretty much the best stuff happens on the bottom.
- When the Peeps get as caramelized as you’re willing to risk, set them down, with the skewers still in them, on a nonstick pan so they can cool down and the shell can solidify. When you’re finished with the next Peep, the resting one should be cool enough to handle without ripping; now pull out the skewer.
- Arrange your charred, mutilated — I mean, toasty, crispy! — Peeps in a fun, carefree tableaux, and charm some young, impressionable children!