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Summer Sundays, my mother, who hated the kitchen, would take down a box of Jell-O from the cupboard and declare “Jell-O time,” to the delight of my sister and me. We loved Jell-O. It wiggled and it wobbled, sometimes falling off the spoon but always making us smile. Mom loved Jell-O too, but more because it was convenient and let her make quick desserts. This was especially important when the weather was warm; less time in the kitchen meant more time for the three of us at the beach or camping out under the maple in the back garden and reading (while Dad happily made supper).
Mom had two favorite ways of “preparing” Jell-O for dessert: with canned fruit suspended in it or with canned milk beaten into the Jell-O when it was almost set. She also had two favorite ways of topping it: with a spoonful of Cool Whip (yum) or with a layer of custard made by adding milk to a few teaspoons of orange-colored powder that came from a can (less yum to me, as I never ceased to annoy her by excavating the shimmering layer and abandoning the custard).
Jellied desserts have always been popular, but in recent years they have experienced a renaissance. Yet despite different tastes and presentations, the enduring qualities of gelatin remain; it wiggles and it wobbles, and it makes you smile.
History of jellied desserts
Jellied desserts have long had their allure.
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Sweet jellies were important in Tudor and Stewart feasts. When not dispatching wives and involved in other nefarious things, Henry VIII delighted guests with gilded rosewater jelly at Garter Banquets (the Order of the Garter was the highest order of chivalry in England, dedicated to England’s patron saint, St. George). Such jellies were status symbols because sugar was so expensive and only available to the wealthy.
Renaissance chefs created molded masterpieces such as castles and fortresses for their wealthy patrons, and later, in the 19th century, molded jellies were all the rage again. Making them, like making any jelly before commercialized gelatin was invented, was time-consuming because bones had to be boiled and the liquid clarified and cooled to make the gelatin.
Fruit jellies that focused on the flavor of the fruit became popular in the 20th century. In her book “Kitchen Essays” (1922), a compilation of the essays she wrote for the London Times newspaper, Lady Agnes Jekyll writes, “For sweets, nothing is nicer than this specially good Orange Jelly … soft and shapeless, of the color of a blood orange, and really tasting of the fruit.”
Commercialization of gelatin
The first commercial gelatin came in sheets that required a long soaking before use, but in 1889, Charles B. Knox of Johnstown, N.Y., developed a method of granulating gelatin. In doing so, he turned gelatin into an easy-to-use ingredient that the home cook (not my mom) could turn to for fancy desserts.
That same year, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in LeRoy, N.Y., sold his formula for Jell-O to Orator Frank Woodward. Two years earlier, Wait had come up with the fruit-flavored dessert, and his wife, May, gave it its now iconic name.
After Knox died in 1908, his wife, Rose, set up a test kitchen and developed recipes — printed on Knox gelatin packages and in cookbooks — for the home cook. The recipes also appeared in newspapers and magazines under the heading “Mrs. Knox Says.”
The marketers of Jell-O, also wanting to show how versatile their product was and created free recipe booklets; one booklet had a printing of 15 million copies.
Making jellied desserts
Although jellied desserts are not difficult to make, the wrong ingredient or misjudging the strength of the gelatin may leave you with a sweet, slightly thickened “drink.”
Avoid using fresh pineapple because it contains bromelain, a chemical with protein-digesting enzymes that break down the gelatin’s protein links, resulting in the gelatin not setting. Because heating the enzymes inactivates them, canned pineapple (heated during canning) won’t ruin a jellied dessert. (When Mom wanted to make a special dessert for company, she combined lemon Jell-O, whipped cream and canned pineapple; once, though, she substituted fresh pineapple and had to serve “lemon Jell-O soup” at the end of the meal, much to her chagrin.)
Alcohol can also affect gelatin’s setting properties, but experimenting with the amount of gelatin in a recipe that calls for alcohol can overcome this problem. If using alcohol, consider light and sparkling wines paired with seasonal fruit and present in lovely dishes or wine glasses.
Non-alcoholic jellies can be made in different colors and layered in molds that will delight children, or let each color of jelly set in a glass pan and then cut it into different shapes and arrange on plates.
Perhaps we are all children at heart when it comes to jellied desserts. They wiggle and they wobble and they still make us smile.
Sparkling White Wine Jelly With Blueberries and Strawberries
This beautiful and simple dessert has the added sweetness of fresh berries.
3 cups sparkling white wine
3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
¾ cup white granulated sugar
½ cup water
½ cup fresh blueberries (wash, pat dry and leave whole)
½ cup washed and hulled strawberries (pat dry and slice thinly)
1. Pour 1 cup of wine into a small bowl and sprinkle the three envelopes of gelatin over it. Let the gelatin soften for 5 minutes.
2. Place sugar in a small saucepan, add ½ cup water and bring slowly to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for 1 minute and then pour over the gelatin-wine mixture. Stir to dissolve the gelatin.
3. Return the mixture to the saucepan and heat slowly until the liquid is clear. Remove from the heat and add the remaining wine.
4. Pour the mixture into a medium size bowl, cover and refrigerate until it has thickened enough to add the berries (1½ to 2 hours).
5. Gently stir the berries into the thickened jelly and divide the mixture between 4 serving dishes. Chill until set.
6. Serve with whipped cream.
Rosé wine makes a lovely pink jelly in which to suspend jewel-toned fruit.
For a more tart dessert, substitute cranberries for the blueberries and strawberries. Add ½ cup fresh and washed cranberries to the sugar and water mixture. Dissolve the sugar slowly and when the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat and cook gently for 5 minutes, then continue with the recipe’s instructions.
For an opaque dessert, whip ⅓ cup whipping cream until stiff and fold into the thickened jelly when you add the berries, then pour into serving dishes and chill until set.
For a non-alcoholic dessert, substitute 3 cups of fruit punch for the wine and then continue with the recipe’s instructions.
Top photo: A gelatin fruit salad. Credit: iStockPhoto
Canadian bakers hold the butter tart in the same esteem as their American counterparts hold the apple pie. Both are icons of their respective nations. Although, admittedly, some may disagree with the belief that the butter tart is a Canadian classic, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “noun – Canadian: a tart with a filling of butter, eggs, brown sugar, and, typically, raisins.”
Of course, we in the Colonies long ago dispensed with the need to have Mother England’s approval, but a vote of confidence from the Oxford is never a bad thing.
Neither is a butter tart.
Butter tarts a distinctly Canadian treat
It’s an English Canadian relative of the French Canadian sugar pie (tarte au sucre). For both, butter is a vital ingredient, although the tarte au sucre uses maple syrup instead of brown sugar.
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One of the first recipes for butter tarts appeared in “The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook.” This fundraising cookbook was published in 1900 in Barrie, Ontario. It included a recipe for a “filling for tarts,” which was submitted by Mrs. Malcolm (Mary) MacLeod, according to Bruce Beacock, the archivist of the Simcoe County Archives, which houses a copy of the cookbook.
Later, in 1908, the “Vogue Cook Book,” published by the Toronto Daily News, included a butter tart recipe from Mrs. G.M.B. of Toronto, and three years after that, the “Canadian Farm Cook Book” included six recipes for butter tarts.
Today, serious Canadian bakers are bound to have their own butter tart recipe, handed down from their great-aunt or their mother or clipped from a magazine and tweaked to the baker’s own taste.
My butter tart recipe came from my father and needed no tweaking. Everyone who tried his butter tarts agreed they were the best they’d ever eaten.
Dad had been a baker since he was 10 years old, when he took over kitchen duties because his mother was confined to bed for a year. Since he was too easygoing to object, his siblings consigned him to the kitchen so they wouldn’t get stuck there themselves. Although at first he wasn’t any more enthusiastic about cooking and baking than they were, he quickly surprised himself by growing to love his new job, particularly baking, which became his passion.
The cakes and pies of his youth were eventually joined by French pastries rich with cream and fruit, chocolate tarts that looked (almost) too beautiful to slice and macarons (a Saturday afternoon adventure long before they became a food trend) that shone like jewels and tasted like ambrosia.
The truth is, a blasphemous thing to admit, for sure, I didn’t much care for butter tarts until my father started making his. There were so many other delights to choose from, and the butter tarts my aunts and grandmothers made, while nice, were nothing special; but with the first batch of Dad’s butter tarts, I changed my mind.
He hadn’t been interested in making them until a package of store-bought butter tarts, with pastry like cardboard and filling like glue, so embarrassed him — they had been eaten by friends who dropped over for coffee — that he headed into the kitchen, got out his yellow ware bowl and began measuring the ingredients for pastry: flour, salt, lard, vinegar and water.
After the pastry had rested for a while, he took the wooden rolling pin with its faded red handles (a shower gift my mother happily passed on to him), and gently rolled out the pastry, cut circles with a juice glass, and after fitting them into the tart pan, crimped the edges with his finger and thumb.
While the pastry chilled in the refrigerator, he turned to the filling — which any butter-tart baker or butter-tart eater will tell you is the most vital part of the whole thing — and assembled the requisite butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, raisins and pinch of salt.
The aroma of the baking tarts made me swoon. We crouched in front of the oven door and watched the liquid bubble while the crust turned golden.
After allowing the butter tarts to cool for as long as I could stand, I bit into my first perfect dessert. The filling was still a bit too warm; it slipped down my chin and onto my fingers. When I’d finished the tart — leaning over the counter and devouring it in four gooey bites — I licked the filling from my fingers. This is still the proper way to eat a butter tart (although it’s important to let it cool enough that you don’t burn your tongue, your chin or your fingers).
I smiled, he nodded, the French pastries were delegated to second choice and my love affair with a Canadian classic began.
Dad’s Butter Tarts
Makes 12 tarts
For the pastry:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup cold lard
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the filling:
⅓ cup melted unsalted butter
½ cup light corn syrup
¾ cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
¾ cup raisins
For the pastry:
1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or your fingertips, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.
2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more water, depending upon how the dough comes together and the time of year.) Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Have ready a 12-cup tart pan.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to a thickness of about ⅛ inch. Using a 4-inch diameter round cutter (or a juice glass), cut out 12 circles. Fit each circle into a cup in the pan. Place the pan into the refrigerator.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the filling:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.
To assemble the tarts:
1. Divide the raisins among the 12 tart shells. Spoon the filling evenly into the shells.
2. Bake until the filling is browned on top and the pastry is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely before removing from the pan and eating.
Top photo: Butter tarts. Credit: Sharon Hunt
I love cookbooks, and although I’m inspired by them throughout the year, I particularly love them in winter when I can settle in a favorite chair with a new discovery. One of my recent finds is “Salt Sugar Smoke — How to Preserve Fruit, Vegetables, Meat, and Fish” (Mitchell Beazley, 2012). It contains a great selection of recipes that boosted my confidence as a novice preserver, as well as more challenging recipes that experienced preservers will appreciate. And for people who love reading cookbooks more than making the recipes in them, “Salt Sugar Smoke” offers great food writing. It’s a triple threat.
By Diana Henry
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The book’s author is Diana Henry, a food columnist for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph magazine. She has won numerous awards and has written three other favorite cookbooks of mine: “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: Food to Warm the Soul”; “Plenty” (in which she helps you make the most of the foods you have at hand); and “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons: Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa.”
I loved this book on sight because of its burgundy spine and its portability — the lovely hold-in-your-hands size makes it easy to take to friends’ kitchens — but I felt some trepidation when I first opened it. After all, preserving food sounds difficult and fraught with possible disasters, but I trusted Henry’s thoroughness and her enthusiasm for her subject. She didn’t let me down.
Preserving food fell out of favor for a while; it was part of other generations. But thankfully it has experienced a renaissance in recent years. For three years, Henry “preserved food every day, often well into the night.” I now understand her enthusiasm. Once I processed my first batch of strawberry jam, I was hooked.
Sweet and savory in ‘Salt Sugar Smoke’
“Salt Sugar Smoke” offers much more than strawberry jam for those with a sweet tooth, as well as for those who prefer savory tastes. For others, like me, who prefer both, Henry covers a lot of ground, from jams to mustards, spoon sweets to chutneys.
Her recipes are well set out, with clear instructions. The photography, by Laura Edwards, will inspire you.
One of the things I loved about this book was the way Henry’s “how to use” tips helped me see how a recipe can expand my meal possibilities. For example, having Thai Sweet Chili Sauce on hand lets me make a simple breakfast omelet something special; it also adds great taste to a shrimp stir-fry for dinner. A little Hot Date and Preserved Lemon Relish on a chicken sandwich elevates lunchtime.
“Be careful about hygiene, which is essential,” Henry stresses, and adds that, “The recipes have been tested according to the sterilizing and potting practices followed in Great Britain, where jams and chutneys are not treated in water baths.” For North American readers, though, she provides guidelines for processing jars in a water bath. She also reminds you to label and date what you make so you won’t have to guess what is in a jar.
Tucked among the recipes are short pieces — such as “Sharbats and Mint Tea: Middle Eastern Pleasures”; “Perfect Partners: The Surprising Possibilities of the Cheese Board”; and my favorite, “Ash Helicopters and Mangoes on the Roof: Pickling in Britain and India” — that offer extra reading delight.
My favorite of her recipes to date includes Nearly Strawberry Jam. I love this because I can make just enough to keep in a bowl in the refrigerator for a few days. It’s fast, not as sweet as many jams and versatile. For a last-minute dessert, some of it spooned over good vanilla ice cream is just the thing. It’s also delicious on French toast or stirred into Greek yogurt.
Queen Henrietta Maria’s Marmalade of Cherries (adapted from a 17th century recipe Henry “stumbled across in Florence White’s ‘Good Things in England’”) is a recipe I love as much for its name as its intense cherry flavor. Purple Pickled Eggs, with beets providing their neon color, are just the thing to spice up a cold plate.
Home-Salted Cod (which is easy to make) brought back memories of my grandmother, for whom preserving food was once vital. With five children, a husband, two sisters-in-law, a mother-in-law and boarders to feed during the Depression, she couldn’t afford to allow any food to go bad. She lived on a small island in Newfoundland, Canada, where cod was a staple, and dried the salted fillets on large wooden racks. Later, she transformed them into filling and delicious meals, such as Fish and Brewis — cod, potatoes and scrunchions (rendered pork fat).
For me, her granddaughter, unburdened by the imperative to feed many mouths, preserving is a new adventure I am appreciating at my own leisurely pace. I also appreciate Henry’s focus on small details, such as a “good jam for your toast” or “chutney that is made from apples you gathered last fall” and how such details help add happiness to life.
Photo: “Salt Sugar Smoke: How to Preserve Fruit, Vegetables, Meat and Fish” by Diana Henry. Credit: Author photo and book cover courtesy of Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited