We have been talking about family recipes all week — and not just family recipes, but classic, old-school, full-blast nostalgic recipes too. So, to cap things off, I thought I would tackle that archetype of family picnics and church cookbooks: Lime Jell-O Salad. It's a recipe that most of us have given up as grown-ups, but do you ever have just the faintest wisp of nostalgic craving for it? So sweet and marshmallowy? Well, here to satisfy those cravings is a grown-up version of lime Jell-O salad, recreated with fresh whole ingredients. It's a creamy, cool, (and gluten-free) summer dessert, tangy with real lime and sweet with pineapple.
When I thought about this recipe, I had a lot of fond memories from childhood. Lime Jell-O salad and its cousin, ambrosia, came out at every family picnic. It's a simple recipe, really. Barely-set Jell-O is whipped together with Cool Whip, crushed pineapple, nuts, and, sometimes, marshmallows or cottage cheese.
Reading old recipes for this Jell-O "salad" brought back both the pleasure and confusion associated with this dish. On the one hand, I love creamy things to be eaten off a spoon. This stuff is so satisfyingly creamy and refreshing, especially at a hot picnic table. On the other hand, what is it? The word "salad" implies that it belongs on the savory side of the table, but there's all those marshmallows. Is it savory? Is it sweet? What is Jell-O salad?
In my mind, this is firmly in dessert territory, and in recreating the pleasures of Jell-O salad without the confusion, I turned to a favorite dessert: Fluff. This old-fashioned dessert takes set gelatin (made from scratch, with coffee, fresh fruit juice, or any other strongly-flavored liquid) and whips it with real whipped cream. The result is a sort of refrigerator ice cream, with cooling nubs of jelly mixed into the cream. It sounds strange, but it tastes like the most wonderful childhood dessert that you never had.
This lime and pineapple fluff works on that principle. It's made with real lime juice, set with pineapple juice and gelatin, and whipped with unsweetened whipped cream, whole chunks of fruit, and garnished with a sprinkle of coconut and some fresh mint. It's not too sweet, and wholly refreshing. It's a dessert to serve at the end of a summer meal. It barely heats up your kitchen, and it's great to make ahead. Oh, and it's gluten-free. Everything you want out of a Jell-O salad, minus the artificial flavorings, and the confusion. This is all real, all good, all dessert.
Fresh Lime & Pineapple Fluff
2 tablespoons powdered gelatin
1/2 cup pineapple juice
3/4 cup fresh lime juice, from 4 limes
1 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
4 ounces cream cheese, softened at room temperature for 1 hour
2 cups heavy cream, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
15 ounces canned pineapple slices
Unsweetened shredded coconut, to garnish
Fresh mint leaves, to garnish
Sprinkle the gelatin over the pineapple juice in a wide, shallow bowl, and set aside to soften for 5 to 10 minutes.
Heat the lime juice with the water and sugar in a 2-quart saucepan, and bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then turn off the heat. Whisk in the softened gelatin and pineapple juice. Turn the heat back on to very low, and continue whisking until the gelatin is completely melted and there are no lumps. (Be careful not to boil the mixture again.)
Pour the gelatin mixture into a 9x9-inch baking dish and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours (or overnight), until it is completely set.
Take the firm gelatin out of the refrigerator and take out about 1/3 of it and chop into very small cubes — about 1/4-inch to a side. Spread on a plate and set aside.
Put the rest of the lime gelatin in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl, and use a hand mixer) and beat on high speed for about 1 minute or until it begins to look frothy. Add the softened cream cheese and 1 cup cream. Beat slowly, then on high, until thick and creamy. Scrape this mixture out into a large separate bowl.
Add the 1 remaining cup cream back into the mixer bowl and beat with the salt for 3 to 5 minutes, or until it holds stiff peaks. Fold this cream into the cream-gelatin mixture in the large bowl.
Drain the canned pineapple. Chop most of the slices into small bites, about the size of the gelatin cubes. (Reserve one or two slices for garnish.) Fold this and the reserved lime gelatin cubes into the cream mixture as well.
Refrigerate the fluff until ready to serve. Serve in small glasses garnished with coconut, fresh mint, and pineapple. Well-covered, this will keep for about 3 or 4 days.
(Images: Faith Durand)