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.
More from Zester Daily:
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