Jello, and its jiggly cousin Royal, have long been derided by people who consider themselves epicures. Perhaps their bad rep is due to the association with school cafeterias and hospital stays. Or colonoscopy prep. So, I feel it’s time to come out and admit that I like the stuff, particularly when it’s combined with other ingredients, and even more when it is fashioned into a beautiful shape by virtue of a mold.
After all, let’s be honest. If we called it aspic, we’d get oohs and aahs. In another time, aspic represented the height of a gourmet dining experience. But aspic is simply gelatin in which meat and/or vegetables are suspended.
A couple of weeks ago, I was on the phone with a friend, venting my frustration in trying to find canned cherries. My usual grocery had discontinued stocking them. My friend suggested I try frozen cherries, and then asked why I needed them. When I told her that they were an essential ingredient in my late mother-in-law’s cranberry-cherry gelatin mold, her immediate reaction was, “Ugh.” I responded that the ruby red side dish is actually delicious. And, besides, it’s a tradition on our Thanksgiving table. Everybody in my family not only expects it; they demand it.
Fast forward to the actual Thanksgiving dinner: In recounting the conversation, my daughter-in-law’s mother said that she, too, prepares a beloved recipe that was her mother’s. Then my other daughter-in-law reminisced about her grandmother’s gelatin mold. In fact, although she herself doesn’t cook or bake, she announced that she would, indeed, make gelatin molds for her family. (I hope I will be invited to partake.)
I loved E’s excitement, so immediately began scouring my bookshelves for my copy of The New Joys of Jello, a book I had received as a gift decades ago. And the memories came charging back. I must have tried a dozen different recipes from that book and from the various magazines that came through our mail slot, and almost all were successful. “Under-the-Sea Pear Salad,” made with cream cheese, pear halves, and ginger? Excellent. “Glazed Peach Cream,” prepared with vanilla ice cream and sliced peaches? Delicious. “Carrot , Celery and Olive Salad?” Loved it.
But it was the Crown Jewel Cake that captured my heart, and then broke it. The photograph of that magnificent construction motivated me to try my hand at making it. Consisting of cubes of stained-glass-colored gelatin cubes suspended in creamy white whipped topping fortified by lemon gelatin, it was gorgeous. Unfortunately, my attempt sagged, the topping not sturdy enough to hold it all together.
Then there was the magazine ad featuring a fishbowl in which fish-shaped fruit pieces swam in a sea of blueberry gelatin. In the ad, it looked fabulous and I thought my kids would love it. Unfortunately, when I tried it, the fishes all went belly-up just like real goldfish. And then, somebody (name withheld to protect the guilty) said upon setting her sights on it, “Blue food? How disgusting.” But it did taste okay.
Despite my failures,
the gelatin mold holds a dear place in my heart.
It’s time to reclaim the gelatin mold. Call it retro. Call it hip. Just call it.