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Jell-O has a bad rap. Once a playful staple at the pool parties of our childhoods, it has since been consigned to the categories of “things you feed to people in hospitals,” “items in Chinese buffets,” and “ways we didn’t want to remember Bill Cosby.” Some of us harbor vague memories of Jell-O recipes from the 1950s—instructions calling for fruity gelatin and mincemeat; recipes that layer lemon-flavored gelatin with olives, green peppers, carrots, and canned pineapple juice. But these are memories we try very hard to suppress. As adults, we look at Jell-O in a practical way: “It is a good food,” we say to ourselves, “for people aged seven and under or ninety-one and above. It’s perfect for people with nominally functional teeth who are in bed before eight thirty in the evening.”
It’s not that we don’t have wonderful memories of Jell-O, because we do. But we are adults now, right? We sit back and eat the things people consider adult desserts, like gelato, lavender macaroons, and biscotti (whose crumbs invariably wind up in my hair, no matter how carefully I attempt to eat them). We make reservations at the kinds of restaurants where even the word Jell-O is not allowed—places where the wines are described as “warm and floral, with a hint of earth” and where it’s not okay to just pour ketchup on everything. We are adults who buy the Wednesday print edition of the New York Times in order to read the Dining section and who scroll through foodie blogs, trying to perfect our homemade butternut squash ravioli and cucumber-mint martinis. Asking us if we still eat Jell-O is like asking us what percentage of our week is spent jumping on trampolines. We are too old for that, aren’t we? We let go of Jell-O the same time we abandoned our Sandylion sticker collections and our Hypercolor T-shirts. Adults don’t eat Jell-O, or if they do, they don’t take it seriously. They are busy paying taxes, owning smartphones, and occasionally thinking about things like “good cholesterol versus bad cholesterol,” “zero percent APR financing,” and “chronic back pain.” Adults meet people for games of racquetball, join book clubs, and take multivitamins that are not shaped like cartoon characters.
We are adults. Eating Jell-O is, traditionally, not something that adults do.
Except that, as we have discovered, day by day, through our grueling routines, sometimes being an adult is horrifically, mind-numbingly boring. Sometimes there are days when we want to put a fist through our office computers, tear up the paperwork we were supposed to be circulating, and run up to our boss, saying, “It’s so nice today. Can we work outside?” There are days when it’s beach-weather hot and we are trapped in an office with air-conditioning cold enough to give hypothermia to a penguin. There are days when, let’s be honest, we are just not in the mood for a seven-dollar salad with chickpeas and carrot shavings, and if we eat another egg white omelet our souls will die. There are days when being an adult is so completely uninspiring that I would be totally okay with reverting to a childlike state and unapologetically slurping sweet, fruity Jell-O while jumping on a trampoline and holding a squirt gun full of lemonade.
We can’t help growing up. But rather than leaving Jell-O behind as a fossilized relic of childhood, I decided to see if I could help it grow up as well. I wasn’t about to make a tray of lime Jell-O, cut it into cubes, and put it out on a folding table next to a bunch of juice boxes. That wasn’t what I wanted for something I remembered so fondly. Jell-O needed a makeover, badly, and I was ready for the challenge.
As a frequent guest at friends’ dinner parties, I was tired of taking the requisite bottle of wine or hastily made brownies. I wanted to impress people, but no one was blown away by my ability to purchase a bottle of eight-dollar Merlot or floored by how adeptly I could buy cookies from the corner store. My unusual Jell-O molds not only impressed my friends and my friends’ friends, they also fit the necessary three I’s:
Interesting ~ Inexpensive ~ Idiotproof
The first seems self-explanatory. The first time I took Jell-O to a party was the first time that something I had taken received so much attention. In a sea of cookies and pies, Jell-O molds get noticed at the dessert table. If you’re adding liquor, they will get noticed even more quickly. (You can add a fourth I for Inebriating, if you are so inclined.) Rather than whipping up a batch of prepackaged watermelon Jell-O in a tin and sticking it next to a tray of plastic forks, I began creating my own flavor combinations: mint and watermelon, coconut and raspberry, chile and chocolate. I began adding cream or fresh fruit. I began layering, creating Jell-Os that are both opaque and translucent, creating Jell-Os with effervescent bubbles trapped in the gelatin, creating Jell-Os so brightly colored that they looked like those displays in modern art museums that people think are pretty but nobody completely understands.
The second is an issue for a lot of people—cost. I do not always have the money to purchase specialty ingredients. If I have a choice between paying my rent or spending fifty dollars on novelty groceries, I will pay my rent. Most of my Jell-O creations cost a few dollars at most. This allows me not only to keep a roof over my head but also to continue to enjoy electric lighting and indoor plumbing and to occasionally take a taxi home in the pouring rain. My Jell-Os are for people who want to create something visually striking but who would rather not pay four dollars for a single cupcake because, hey, those car payments aren’t going to pay themselves.
As for the Jell-Os being idiotproof, I will say this about myself: although I am interested in cool ingredients and flavor combinations, I am not a trained chef. The Jell-O recipes here are for people who are creative and fun and are decent at following directions. Even if your highest culinary achievement was baking a cookie in an Easy-Bake oven using a 100-watt light bulb and you will never land a position on a cooking reality show, your experience—or lack of it—in no way prohibits you from trying any of the recipes in this book.
And if you feel comfortable working with Jell-O after attempting some of these recipes, feel free to get inventive and come up with some creations of your own.
The Birth of Creative Jell-O
My love of creative Jell-Os grew out of my love of living in New York City, where everyone is mind-bogglingly creative. I am surrounded at all times by people who paint or draw or write or create fascinating graphics using their computers—people who sew their own clothing or work in interior design. In the midst of all this, I had hit a creative wall. Although I consider myself a creative person, my innovative streak had recently been limited to staging artistic photographs of my hamster. (While endearing, it was not as if I hoped to become the Ansel Adams of hamster photographers.) I wanted to create. I wanted to make something that I could share with others, and creating interesting Jell-Os helped fill that niche.
My first attempt at a creative Jell-O was simple: a vodka tonic with blueberries that I took to a friend’s birthday. It featured a layer of Cool Whip and tonic, with a top layer of blueberries suspended in both vodka and lime Jell-O. Surrounded by other party guests, I slowly pulled off the mold to reveal my creation. And I was, admittedly, nervous. Arriving at an adult gathering with a container of Jell-O is like showing up at a child’s birthday party and talking about the Dow Jones industrial average. People will think you’re weird. Or so I thought. I looked at the people at the party with their designer eyeglasses and tasteful clothing, having conversations about art and business and work and life. I looked at the young urban professionals crowded into little groups, conversing over glasses of wine, and stood there with my Jell-O like a twelve-year-old, embarrassed and a little anxious.
And they loved it.
Everyone from the administrative assistants to the aspiring artists to the third-year, angst-ridden law students congregated around the Jell-O, asking what it was, what was in it, how I made it, how they could make it, and looking at it with the excitement and enthusiasm of kids being let out for recess. Since then I’ve made dozens of other Jell-O molds, experimenting with everything from green tea to tiramisu to eggnog made with creamy, dark rum. I’ve flavored them with spices and fruit juices, and folded in fresh produce, yogurt, and nuts. I’ve created luxuriously creamy molds and quirky alcoholic molds and gelatins based on holiday favorites and classic comfort foods. I’ve created Jell-Os for vegans, nonvegans, boozers, teetotalers, uptight perfectionists, laid-back hippies, young people, old people, and anyone in between. All of them have been both ogled and loved.
Because here’s the thing: inside every adult with a seventy-dollar haircut is a little child smearing Vaseline in her hair, and inside every young professional enjoying an expensive dinner at a tapas bar is someone who would be just as happy marveling over a neon pink Jell-O mold shaped like a lobster in the cozy living room of a friend’s apartment. And I’m not saying making a neon pink lobster Jell-O mold is appropriate for all occasions, because clearly it isn’t. But we live in a world of gray pantsuits, office jobs, and dry conversations. If the adage “You are what you eat” is true, it’s nice to see something brightly colored and resilient on the table.
Tips, Tricks, Tools, and Techniques
Making your gelatin isn’t rocket science, but that’s not to say you won’t have questions. In my years of making creative Jell-Os, I’ve learned (often the hard way) what works and what doesn’t. This tips and tricks chapter will give you the benefit of learning from my mistakes, answering questions about everything from refrigeration time to the perennial, why isn’t it turning out like the picture?
How long should I refrigerate the gelatin?
Different gelatin recipes will require different techniques and refrigeration times. The consistency required for layering multiple gelatin flavors is different from the consistency required to immerse your coworker’s stapler in Jell-O. On the opposite page is a guide to help achieve your mischievous gelatin needs. These times are approximate and will vary based on the volume of gelatin being used, the thickness of the layers being created, and the temperature of your refrigerator. It is best to check on the gelatin’s consistency regularly during refrigeration.
Many of the recipes in this book call for unflavored gelatin rather than the fruit-flavored gelatin I am used to. What’s the difference?
Unflavored gelatin, as the name suggests, is free of flavorings and sugar and therefore allows you to create a Jell-O mold “from scratch” using ingredients such as cream or fruit juices or even wine. It comes in powdered and sheet form, but for simplicity’s sake, all of the recipes in this book call for the powdered form. Knox is the most common brand of unflavored gelatin and is typically sold in boxes of multiple envelopes containing 1/4 ounce each. Unflavored gelatin is also available in bulk, so all of the recipes in this book give gelatin amounts in both envelopes and tablespoons. Even though 1/4 ounce gelatin is actually slightly less than 1 tablespoon (that is, a “scant tablespoon”), I call for 1 tablespoon per package. That minor difference does not affect the recipe.
I’ve never seen a store that sells Jell-O molds. Are molds necessary? Where can I find them?
Jell-O is a lot like wedding cake: you want it to taste good, but people also pay attention to how it looks. Rather than pouring your gelatin into an empty Chinese food container, invest in some interesting molds. Websites like eBay and Etsy sell vintage copper molds. If, like me, you have relatives who just can’t seem to stay away from Salvation Army stores, you can find them there as well. You can use molds intended for soaps or candies, decorative Bundt cake pans, loaf pans, metal mixing bowls, or quirky ice-cube trays. For my very first Jell-O mold masterpiece, I used a Tupperware container—no frills, but it got the job done. Consider picking up holiday- or occasion-themed molds based on specific Jell-Os you want to try: a wreath-shaped mold for Christmas, a heart-shaped mold for Valentine’s Day. You don’t want to show up on St. Patrick’s Day with a mold shaped like a dreidel, and you certainly don’t want to prepare for your niece’s birthday with the same mold you used for your friend’s bachelorette party.
What size mold will I need?
Most of the recipes in this book fill a 4- to 6-cup mold, but occasionally there’ll be something larger, so keep at least one large mold on hand. Bundt cake pans that hold 8 to 10 cups will work. Individual molds should have a capacity of 1/2 to 3/4 cup.
How the %&@# do you get it out of the mold?
This is one of the questions most frequently asked by beginners. Many a novice has worked hard to create the perfect Jell-O mold, only to stare blankly at the gelatin in its container, having no idea how to get it out, looking for a zipper or pull-tab or eject button. Don’t lose any sleep over this. Getting your gelatin out of the mold is simple.
1. Make sure your gelatin is firm, using the table on page 9 as a guide.
2. Moisten the tips of your fingers and gently pull the edges of the gelatin away from the mold.
3. Dip the mold in warm (not hot) water. Immerse it so the water comes up to, but not over, the rim. Keep submerged for 15 seconds.
4. Moisten a serving plate (so you can slide your mold and center it on the plate once unmolded) and place it upside down over the mold.
5. Hold the mold and the plate together, invert, shake slightly to loosen the gelatin, then carefully pull the mold away. (If this does not work, repeat the steps.)
It’s taking FOR-EV-ER. Can’t I make it chill faster somehow?
1. The container you use affects how quickly the mold will chill. Metal bowls or molds will get cold faster and your gelatin will be ready in less time.
2. Size is also a consideration. A dozen small Jell-O molds will be ready much sooner than one enormous mother-ship-size Jell-O mold. Using individual molds can cut a few hours off your chilling time.
3. The Ice-Bath method. Prepare the gelatin per the recipe. Place the bowl of gelatin mixture in a large bowl of ice and water. Stir the mixture occasionally as it chills to ensure it retains a smooth consistency as it thickens.
So I’m trying to make a layered mold and none of the layers are sticking together. Please help me before I start crying.
Layered molds can be a little tricky, but success comes with patience. Follow these steps and it should turn out beautifully. If one layer is too firm, the layer placed on top will slide right off it. Conversely, if one layer is too soft, the colors will blend together.
1. Refrigerate each layer until set but not firm (see the table on page 9) before adding the next layer.
2. With the exception of the first layer, make sure the gelatin mixtures for subsequent layers have cooled and thickened a little before adding. If you pour the gelatin mixture while it is still warm, it may “melt” the previous layer a bit, causing the flavors and colors to run together.
3. Also, as you will need to wait for about an hour (depending on the thickness of the layers) for each of the layers in a layered mold to solidify, use the down time productively. It’s an excellent excuse to clean your living room, take up calligraphy, catch up on episodes of whatever show everyone at your workplace “can’t stop talking about,” learn a new language, or feed your hamster.
Can I have a list of common mistakes people have made with their Jell-O molds so that I can avoid making those same mistakes?
You most certainly may have one of those lists.
It’s getting all clumpy! Why is it getting all clumpy?!
To avoid clumping when using unflavored gelatin, sprinkle the gelatin over cold water and allow the granules to partially hydrate for 2 to 4 minutes before adding the hot water. (This step is included in all of the recipes that use unflavored gelatin.)
Why does my gelatin have little pieces of purple sand in it?
To make sure flavored gelatin is clear and evenly set, check that all the granules are completely dissolved in boiling water or other liquid before adding the cold liquid.
What happens if I leave my unmolded gelatin out on the counter overnight?
If you’re storing a gelatin mold overnight, keep it in the refrigerator. Unless you used a mold shaped like the Wicked Witch of the West, you’re not going to be a big fan of the “I’m melting” look.
I left it in the fridge overnight and it’s so dry it looks like it should be in a commercial for moisturizer. How can I prevent this?
If you’re storing the gelatin in its mold overnight, cover it with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.
Is Jell-O one of those things you can make today and then eat three years from now?
No, that is a terrible idea. Gelatin is best if eaten within three days of making it. Don’t try to freeze your Jell-O mold either. The water and the other ingredients will separate and it will turn to a slushy mess.
I’m having trouble evenly mixing in some of the creamy ingredients.
If you’re mixing sour cream, yogurt, or mayonnaise into your gelatin, use a fork or a wire whisk rather than a spoon.
I’m trying to add fresh pineapple and kiwi to my Jell-O and something is going horribly, abysmally wrong.
Fresh or frozen pineapple, kiwi, figs, guava, ginger, and papaya contain an enzyme that breaks down gelatin, preventing it from thickening. Cooking deactivates this enzyme, so canned versions are fine. If you want to use fresh pineapple, simply slice or dice the pineapple per the instructions in the recipe and boil it in water to cover for 10 minutes. Drain the water and let the pineapple cool to room temperature before adding it to your gelatin mixture.
It’s taking longer than usual for all of the gelatin granules to dissolve in the milk. Is that normal?
Yep. Gelatin can sometimes take a little longer when used with cream or milk.
From the Hardcover edition.