Admit it. You miss those old Jello-O salads. Remember the desserts? Mini-marshmallows, Cool Whip, nuts, and pineapple suspended in luminescent layers of primary colors like prehistoric species in amber. Open the fridge and the multi-layered form comes to life when the reverberation of the door sends it quivering. Cherry-flavored Jell-0 with banana slices. Tuna aspics on the buffet tables of the ’50s. Molded gelatin salads of every conceivable variation at potlucks.
Making gelatin used to be a complicated and lengthy process. In the 1850s, Peter Cooper, benefactor of The Cooper Union, New York’s famous art, engineering, and architecture school, patented the first gelatin dessert. In 1897, the Jell-O brand was introduced by Pearl Wait as a fruit-flavored version, sporting strawberry, orange, lemon, and raspberry flavors. Charles Knox developed granulated unflavored gelatin around 1900.
Gelled desserts and aspics rapidly became popular among housewives when electric refrigerators swept into American households. Using gelatin was considered economical and healthy. It performed culinary gymnastics as a food extender and by morphing from salad to dessert in a single bound. It was the perfect segue from labor-intensive layer cakes to quick and easy desserts.
In the 1950s, Jell-O added new flavors; grape, black cherry, and black raspberry, and fruity gelatin went from being a food stretcher to an elegant addition to a party or church supper. Holiday dinners featured at least one Jell-O salad with alternating pastel and translucent layers. Every cookbook from a church or synagogue or school has pages devoted to dishes with names like Merry Cherry Salad and Rainbow Delight.
Roger Petersen, political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recalls his parents reminiscing about Jell-O after the death of his grandmother. Petersen grew up in rural Iowa, where most farms used electricity only for lighting homes. ”Richer farmsteads could afford refrigeration as well, and would serve Jell-O as a treat,” he recalls. ”Being able to serve Jell-O was a status symbol. The only way to have a gelatin dessert before that was to leave it out on the porch during the winter.” A personal favorite from his mother’s church cookbook is Seafoam Salad, made with lime Jell-O, canned pears, cream cheese, and Dream Whip.
As is true of sausage, one may not want to know how gelatin is made. A call to the Jell-O consumer service line run by Kraft Foods confirmed that. The representative said Jell-O brand gelatin was made not from the hooves and horns of animals but from their hides. Then he said something about collagen, acid, and percentages, which is when the ”need to know” factor shut down and ignorance seemed a better option. Peterson said Sioux City, Iowa, one of America’s meatpacking centers, also had one of the largest gelatin factories.
If you are a vegetarian, neither Knox gelatin nor packaged gelatin desserts should be on your list. There is a product called Agar made solely from seaweed, which has the properties necessary to congeal, is unflavored, and does not smell fishy. Hain makes a SuperFruits Dessert Mix that is vegetarian, Kosher, made with natural flavors and natural color, and tastes good. Bread and Circus carries both.
Any liquid, such as juice, or semi-solid can be made to set. One packet, or 1 tablespoon, of gelatin solidifies two cups of liquid or semi-solids. If you plan to add pieces of fruit or nuts, cut the liquid by one quarter. Sour cream and cream cheese are popular additions and take the place of some liquid. If you are looking to lower fat content, substitute yogurt cheese. You won’t be able to tell the difference.
When using a mold, it’s important to moisten with water or a nonstick spray before adding the gelatin mixture. A quick dip in a bowl of warm water and a prayer might help before flipping it onto a platter. Moisten the plate before unmolding, as you might miss the center and then could slide the gelatin into perfect position.
Today, Valentine’s Day, try this adaptation of the classic French cheese dessert coeur a la creme (heart of cream). This version uses unflavored gelatin and is lower in fat and lighter than the original, which calls for heavy cream, sour cream, and cream cheese. It is traditionally made in a special ceramic heart mold and wrapped in cheesecloth to allow the whey to drain. You can use any mold for this one. Served with a strawberry sauce made from frozen berries, this is elegant, healthy, easy, and you won’t be eating your heart out over this delicious treat.
Coeur a la Creme
1/3 cup cold water
1 1/2 packets unflavored gelatin
2-3 tablespoons boiling water
8 ounces farmers cheese (try Friends brand in the dairy section)
1 cup light cream cheese
1 cup nonfat yogurt cheese
1/2 cup light cream
1/2 cup sugar
several whole strawberries
1. Place 1/3 cup cold water in a small bowl. Sprinkle gelatin on the water, and let sit five minutes. Add 2-3 tablespoons of boiling water to mixture, and mix until gelatin is completely dissolved.
2. Place farmer’s cheese, light cream cheese, yogurt cheese, and light cream in a
mixing bowl. Beat on low for 1 minute.
3. Add sugar and beat again until smooth.
4. Stir in gelatin mixture. Pour into a heart-shaped mold, and chill until set, about 3
hours. Unmold on platter, and decorate with whole strawberries.
5. To Serve: Cut heart into sections and spoon strawberry sauce over the dessert.
NOTE: Making your own yogurt cheese is easy. Inexpensive, reusable strainers are available in kitchen stores, such as the package of two for $3.59 at Kitchen etc. You also can use strong paper coffee filters. Place 11/2 cups yogurt in the strainer set over a container with enough space on the bottom to allow the liquid to drain. Place in fridge for 5 hours, or overnight. The liquid whey will drain and leave a thick yogurt cheese, thus reducing the volume. It is a great base for spreads and dips. Yogurt cheese also is available in most Middle Eastern grocery stores.
1 10 oz. package frozen strawberries (or raspberries)
1/4-1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons kirsch or maraschino liqueur, optional
Place all sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor, and mix until blended. Chill until ready to serve.
Spicy tomato aspic
Serve with seeded crackers or French bread, cucumbers, fresh basil, and light
mayonnaise on a bed of lettuce. This is a refreshing and low-calorie salad or spread.
1 cup water
2 packets gelatin
3 cups Bloody Mary cocktail mix or V-8
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1. In a bowl, sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup of cold water.
2. In a small pot, heat tomato juice and the remaining 1/2 cup water.
3. Add the softened gelatin, and stir until completely dissolved.
4. Remove from heat, and stir in the lemon juice.
5. Pour into prepared mold. Chill until set.
(Reprinted with permission from the National Dairy Council)
This recipe also makes delightful smoothies. Place two frozen servings in the blender with a half-cup of lowfat milk. Try making it using other fruit-flavored gelatin.
1 package orange gelatin powder
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1 eight-ounce container vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup boiling water
1. Place gelatin mix in a medium-size bowl. Add boiling water. Stir until gelatin mix is
2. After mixture cools slightly, add milk and yogurt. Stir until all ingredients are
3. Spoon into freezer-pop molds or 5-ounce paper cups. If using paper cups, cover
with foil and insert a wooden pop stick. Freeze for several hours until firm.
Lemon and Lime Gelatin Dessert
You can’t compare the pure taste of this fruit dessert with the artificially flavored.
Any juice can be made into a gelatin dessert.
1 packet unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup sugar
11/2 cups boiling water
1/4 cup cold water
Juice from 1 lemon and 1 lime
1. In a bowl, sprinkle gelatin on 1/4 cup cold water.
2. Add boiling water, and mix until dissolved.
3. Add lemon and lime juices and sugar. Mix until liquid is clear.
4. Pour into 4 serving cups. Decorate each with a slice of lemon and lime, and a
sliver of skin from each.
5. Chill until set, about 4 hours.