Once celebrated as "America's Most Famous Dessert", Jell-O has fallen from favor since its heyday in the 1950's. This often misunderstood treat was once the medium of the creative post-war housewife to make inventive meals and desserts, but it has since been relegated to ranks of hospital food and fraternity party Jell-O shots. However it need not be this way.
The possibilities of Jell-O
Jell-O's colors, flavors and malleability are often ignored. Jell-O is fun, nostalgic, and the creative culinary possibilities are almost endless. Show up to a backyard BBQ in a sea of potato salad and bean dip with a multi-layered, sunflower shaped Jell-O mold infused with peach schnapps and peach slices and you are bound to stand out from the crowd. And once fellow partygoers try the layers of creamy sweetened condensed milk and peach gelatin with a zing of schnapps, minds will be changed about the boringness of Jell-O.
During my stint with unemployment I needed a new hobby to fill the time between job searching and cycling. I started experimenting with gelatin molding. Cooking was never my thing but I needed an inexpensive, creative outlet that would give me a much-needed sense of accomplishment. The molds started simply, usually with alcohol, and a single flavor that I would bring to parties and BBQs. The desserts were well received by friends and family, to their surprise, realizing that this was not their grandmother's gelatin dessert. Inspired to do more and wanting to change the perception that gelatin is boring I kept making my molded creations, coming up with more elaborate and unexpected recipes involving layers of fruit, cream, and exotic gelatin flavors. People were so excited by my new endeavor they started finding vintage molds in thrift stores to give to me along with suggestions for gelatin concoctions they'd like me to make. Inspired, I strove to make not only tasty desserts but also visually interesting creations. I started to consider each of my molded gelatins to be little sculptures.
Not only are Jell-O molds delicious and beautiful to behold, but they are also easy, fun, and inexpensive to make. You don't have to be a pastry chief to mold gelatin and you don't have to shop at a fancy gourmet market to find ingredients.
Tips for a succesful Jell-O mold
In order to make a successful Jell-O mold there are some simple tips and tricks:
• Firstly select an appropriate mold. Use a traditional decorative metal or plastic mold. (Glass and ceramic molds are heavy and make unmolding the gelatin more difficult). Also choosing a mold that is the same volume as your recipe, in this case a 7 or 8 cup mold, will make unmolding easier.
• To prepare gelatin for molding use 25% less cold water than the package calls for. For example for a 3 oz package of gelatin, prepare with 1 cup boiling water, but only 3/4 cups of cold water instead of 1 cup as the package calls for. (This adjustment has already been made for this recipe.) Decreasing the water makes the gelatin firmer and therefore less fragile and easier to unmold.
• To suspend or arrange fruits in gelatin, first refrigerate it until thickened to the consistency of raw eggs. When you draw a spoon through it, it should leave a definite impression. If the gelatin is too thin the fruit may sink to the bottom or float to the top. Arrange fruit in a pattern in the bottom of the mold and spoon the thickened gelatin over it. Or stir the fruit into the thickened gelatin to suspended it throughout and spoon mixture into the mold.
• To create layers in your mold it works best to alternate clear and opaque layers as this makes layers distinct and defined. If you create all clear layers of different colors, the layers may be hard to discern as the light passes through the mold. Opaque layers can be created by substituting ice cream, yogurt, sweetened condensed milk (my favorite), whipped topping, or cream cheese for some of the water in the preparation. Refrigerate each layer until the gelatin is set but not firm before adding the next layer. The gelatin should be relatively firm but stick to your fingers when touched. If the lower layer is too firm, the layers will not adhere to each other and may slip apart when unmolded. Each layer mixture should be cool and slightly thickened before pouring it into he mold. A warm mixture could soften the layer below and cause the layers to run together.
With these basic rules and a little creativity one can create almost any kind of mold they imagine. The possibilities are endless!
Peaches & Cream Jello (with Schnapps)
2 (3 oz) packages of peach flavored gelatin
3 1/2 cups boiling water
1 1/4 cups cold water
3/4 cup peach schnapps (or substitute cold water for non-alcoholic version)
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (15 oz) can sliced peaches
2 envelopes Knox unflavored gelatin
In a medium bowl, stir 2 cups boiling water into both packages of peach gelatin for 2 minutes until the gelatin is fully dissolved. Stir in 3/4 cups cold water and 3/4 cup peach schnapps. Refrigerate until gelatin thickens to the consistency of raw eggs. Drain peaches well and arrange them in a formation in the bottom of the mold. Reserve the syrup from the can. Spoon the thickened peach gelatin into the mold over the arranged peach slices. Refrigerate until the gelatin is set but not firm (gelatin should stick the fingers when touched).
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, sprinkle 2 packages of unflavored gelatin (Knox) over 1/2 cup cold water and allow the gelatin to absorb the water. Stir in 1 1/2 cups boiling water for 2 minutes until gelatin is fully dissolved. Stir in sweetened condensed milk and peach syrup until the mixture is smooth. Refrigerate mixture until slightly thicken then gently spoon into the mold over the peach gelatin layer. Refrigerate overnight or until firm.
To unmold your Jell-O mold, fill a sink or basin with warm water. Dip the mold just to the rim in the warm water for about 10 seconds. Lift from water, hold upright, and shake slightly to loosen the gelatin from mold. Place a cold, moistened plate over the top of the mold and invert the plate and mold together. Carefully lift the mold, if gelatin does not release dip the mold in warm water and try again.
The Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn
(Images: Victoria Belanger)