I picked up a copy of “Hello, Jell-O,” a new cookbook by Victoria Belanger (Ten Speed Press, 2012), with my 9-year-old daughter in mind. Jell-O, I thought, would be a fun food to make together this summer. She looked at the book’s cover of “petite watermelons,” red gelatin in lime rinds, and a big smile appeared. She went through every page of the book and quickly picked out several recipes to try.
I flipped through the book, not expecting much. I snobbishly avoid the Jell-O mold my mother sometimes serves at family gatherings. Something holds me back. I don’t know if it’s the obviously artificial coloring that turns me off or the fact that it’s sweet and served with our main (savory) course, but I never touch it.
‘Hello Jell-O’ has lineage
Oeufs en gelée, however, the French traîteur staple of a soft-boiled egg suspended in gelatin, often with a flourish of ham or smoked salmon and a fleck of parsley, is totally acceptable. I love it, in fact. And rectangular “cakes” of meats and vegetables, held together with aspic, are quite lovely. Cooks have used aspic since the Middle Ages (as a way of preserving foods) and Marie-Antoine Carême, the great French chef, embellished many dishes with aspic glazes in the 18th century. When food, fish, chicken or meat is covered with aspic mixed with a white or brown sauce, it’s a chaud-froid — something prepared hot (chaud) and served cold (froid). In the 1800s, French chef Jules Gouffé fiddled around with subjecting fruit to the chaud-froid treatment.
So Jell-O has its beginnings in fine French cuisine. Some of Belanger’s recipes are downright chic. Take, for instance, “sparkling Champagne and strawberries.” What a lovely way to end a meal. (Or begin one!) The sliced strawberries and bubbles suspended in golden individual molds were beautiful. The other eight “boozy molds,” as Belanger calls these adult concoctions, sound good too. The minty mojito might be up next.
Kitchen laboratory for kid-friendly recipes
The Fourth of July seemed to be the perfect occasion to try my daughter’s all-American selection of “root beer float squares.” Making the treat was like undertaking a science experiment (my daughter poking it with her finger throughout the process). We watched the powdered gelatin soak up the water and get puffy. Then we poured boiling water over it, stirred, and mixed some root beer into our potion. A white foam appeared which we skimmed off.
We chilled the mixture until it set, then cut the wobbly stuff into cubes. Part two of the recipe had us transforming vanilla ice cream into soup on the stove (what fun for a kid!) then mixing it with more gelatin. We poured that over the root beer cubes, chilled it and cut it into more cubes — now brown and white. They were a hit, but the real highlight was making them.
The tone of the Belanger’s book is just right. In the “Tips, Tricks, Tools and Techniques” section, for example, a heading reads: “How the %&@# do you get it out of the mold?”
While the author is having fun with her subject (and how could she not), she delivers helpful information. There are some nice photographs by Angie Cao and plenty of great recipes.
Belanger, who writes a blog called The Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn, offers recipes for layered molds, creamy molds, seasonal molds and even molds made with agar rather than gelatin, for vegans. There’s a strawberry-Nutella mold, and one made with green tea and milk. Peaches and cream, too. All require very few ingredients and seem easy to whip up. And so my daughter and I will. All summer long.
Top photo composite:
Cover of “Hello, Jell-O” and author Victoria Belanger. Credits: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press.