KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Joys of Jell-O
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Friday, February 08, 2008
Joys of Jell-O
The title says it all. There is a world of joy in Jell-O-making.

I picked up this treasure written in 1963 at a garage sale years ago. I had always meant to prepare the recipes from it but, invariably, I'd just dust it off every once in a while to giggle over the saturated color photos.

Flights of 1960's culinary fancy fill the pages. Dishes such as Hawaiian Eyeful, Fruited Perfection, and Under-the-Sea Salad Keep me reading. Fantasies, Medleys and no fewer than five Surprises populate the book. The most surprising being the fact that someone discovered what pleasure combining stewed tomatoes, vinegar and strawberry Jell-o can produce.

I was fascinated by Jell-O's versatility-- a Twentieth Century aspic--especially, according to the company, how well it goes with seafood. The Sea Dream, in which a cucumber and vinegar-spiked lime Jell-O serves as the perfect pedestal for bay shrimp, was intriguing, as was the playfully named Ring-Around-the-Tuna (a "beautiful jewel-like entree salad for your luncheon or buffet table"). Luncheon. I wish more people said that word.

At some point during my latest perusal of this book, I realized that no one I know seems to make Jell-O anymore. Except my friend Karen. Granted, it still seems to be a mainstay of the Mid-western Junior League and the state of Utah, but the product isn't a part of my life as it was when I was a kid. And before you ask, I have never ever wrestled in a pool of it, no matter what anyone tells you.

In my household, there was never any ceremony to its preparation. No sophisticated layering, the special molds collected dust behind my giant playchest of Hot Wheels. One just added the boiling water, poured it into custard cups and shoved them into the refrigerator. At my grandmother's house, it may have been prepared solely and grudgingly for the purpose of entertaining grandchildren. A woman who made pastas, soups, sauces, and desserts entirely from scratch must have held this product in contempt, judging by the cracks and semi-petrified state which developed from lack of interest and/or consumption at the back of her ice box. I never asked her about it, I'd simply take one and eat it anyway--letting the super-hardened bits melt on my tongue. Texture is important to children.

I've gone a very long time without eating Jell-O. What makes this product so immensely popular outside my circle? Is it the watching of its wiggle? The witnessing of its jiggle? Perhaps there are more people with throat infections out there than I had previously thought.

This week, I decided to find out how much joy this gelatinous product could give me.

I thought I would tackle one of the more savory, aspic-like dishes such as Vegetable Salad (pictured below, right) with cauliflower and pimiento.

It was much more difficult than I thought. Rather than the looking somewhat like one of Hedda Hopper's spring hats, which is what attracted me to the dish in the first place, mine took on a rather sinister appearance. Growing impatient for the thing to gel, I had great difficulty in getting the vegetables to suspend themselves attractively. Lots of air bubbles ensued and the result looked more like cauliflower drowning in an algal bloom. It even tasted of futile panic.

And it turned my fingernails green.

I sat down on my couch, empty Lime Jell-O box in hand, and took a look at the ingredients. Sugar topped the list, followed by gelatin, adipic acid (for tartness), less than 2% natural and artificial flavor, disodium phosphate and sodium citrate (control acidity), fumaric acid (for tartness), Yellow 5, Blue 1, BHA (Preservative).

Adipic acid? I looked it up. Granted, this is food grade adipic acid, but the realization that it's primary, non-food use is in the production of nylon and Polyurethane made me a little uneasy. At least fumaric acid is found naturally in lichen and Iceland moss. BHA? Butylated hydroxyanisole, which the National Institute of Health considers reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. I threw my little disaster away.

And yet, I still wanted Jell-O. I opted for something Jell-O-esque instead. Like real gelatin. I grabbed a box of unflavored gelatin from the store shelf and read the ingredient list: gelatin. That's it. I decided to make my own, with a little suggestive help from a recipe on the side of the box. Why not add real fruit juice for tartness? Why not indeed.

Making your own flavors gives you a lot more freedom to explore an exciting gelatinous world outside your door and inside your refrigerator. It doesn't really take any more time than the other stuff. And it wont give you cancer.

In all, I was more disturbed by Jell-O than over-joyed by it. Don't misunderstand me. I love to be disturbed by food items. I enjoy the idea of Jell-o, and there will always be room for it's cookbooks on my shelves, just not in my refrigerator.

Tart Cherry Gelatin

You can use whatever juice you want in this, provided you avoid pineapple, kiwi, ginger, papaya, fig, or guava juice-- the enzymes in these will not allow the gelatin to set. I just chose a tart cherry juice because that's what my mood dictated.

You may or may not wish to add sugar to the recipe. The sugar level of your juice-of-choice will tell you what you need. Just taste it first.


1 packet (7 grams) of unflavored gelatin
2 cups tart cherry juice
1/4 cup sugar (or not)


1. In a medium bowl, sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cherry juice, letting stand for one minute.
2. Add 1 1/2 cups of boiling cherry juice, stirring until dissolved. Keep stirring for about five minutes.
3. Pour into vessels of your choice-- a two cup mold, dessert dishes, or wine glasses.
4. Chill for several hours or overnight until firm.
5. Garnish with whatever you feel like. I'm tired of telling you what to do. I chose a slightly sweetened whipped cream and toasted almonds. Judging by the photo, a lot of whipped cream.

Serves two.

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