These pretty cups of spiced apple jelly topped with lightly sweetened yogurt mousse taste like apple pie in Jell-O form. But better than Jell-O — this spoon dessert is made with agar instead of gelatin, so even vegetarian dessert lovers can indulge. Combining the very Western flavor of spiced apple cider with the texture of an Asian agar-based jelly, this is a sweet that is both intriguing and comfortingly familiar.
Agar is made from seaweed, making it a vegetarian and somewhat healthy alternative to gelatin. Like gelatin, it comes in different forms — powdered or stick — but I chose to use powdered, as it is the easiest form to accurately measure. Look for agar at Asian or health food markets, where it may also be labeled as kanten.
Since the jellies can be assembled up to 24 hours ahead, they make the ideal finish to an autumn dinner party. They are light and refreshing, but creamy and sweet enough to satisfy any sweet tooth. While the process of reducing, chilling and boiling the apple juice is a little fussy, it is a necessary step to ensure the agar is properly incorporated. Plus, the yogurt mousse can be made in the time it takes to cool the juice, so the only down time is waiting for the jellies and mousse to chill and set in the refrigerator, after all the active work is done.
This dessert was inspired by a woman I knew in Japan, the wife of a retiree whom I tutored in English, if "tutoring" is the right word to describe being paid to spend two hours speaking in my native tongue while eating a spectacular home-cooked dinner once a week. His wife made and served all the meals, and spoke a small amount of English. Combined with my small amount of Japanese, I was eventually able to get the rough recipe for my favorite dessert of hers, an agar-based grapefruit jelly topped with yogurt mousse. She always seemed flattered when I liked her cooking. And I always wished she was tutoring me!
For the jelly
3 cups unfiltered apple juice
2 whole allspice
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon powdered agar
For the mousse
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon powdered agar
Nutmeg or ground cinnamon, for garnish (optional)
In a medium pot, bring the apple juice, allspice, cloves and cinnamon stick to a boil. Boil uncovered for 15 minutes or until the juice has reduced to 2 cups. Fill a sink or large basin with a few inches of cold water and place the pot in the cold water bath. Let cool 15-20 minutes, or until the juice no longer feels warm to the touch.
While the juice chills, make the mousse. Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks and set aside in the refrigerator. Place the yogurt in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth. In a small pot, combine the water, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon agar and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring once or twice. Working quickly, whisk the hot mixture into the yogurt. Add the whipped cream and whisk just until smooth. Place the mousse in the refrigerator to chill for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days. (Cover with plastic wrap after 2 hours.)
Once the juice has cooled, have four 1/2-cup capacity glasses or ramekins ready. Put the pot back on the stove and sprinkle the juice with 1 teaspoon agar. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring once or twice. (Don't let the mixture boil madly or it will become foamy.) Pour the juice into the glasses or ramekins. If there are any bubbles or bits of foam, they can be scooped out with a small spoon. Place the glasses in the refrigerator to chill for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days. (Cover with plastic wrap after 2 hours.)
To assemble the dessert, whisk the yogurt mousse until smooth. Spoon a dollop of mousse onto each jelly and top with a sprinkling of freshly-grated nutmeg or cinnamon. Once assembled, the dessert will keep in the fridge, covered, for up to 24 hours.
• For a completely vegan dessert, try replacing the yogurt mousse with whipped coconut cream.
• Unfiltered apple juice is more intensely apple-flavored than the usual clear juice. I buy mine from Trader Joe's.
• Agar is quite different from gelatin. It solidifies at room temperature, so you must work quickly when assembling the mousse, to avoid lumps. When heating the agar, don't stir until the mixture has come to a boil, and keep the mixture at a gentle boil, to avoid depositing the agar onto the sides of the pot.
• You will have extra yogurt mousse left over. Spoon it over hot drinks, layer it with fruit compote, or dollop it onto cake or pie. It will keep for 2 days covered in the refrigerator. Whisk before each use.
(Images: Anjali Prasertong)