I have a brand-new dessert obsession. It isn't ice cream, or cake, or even this dreamboat of a peanut butter icebox cake. Nope I'm having a love affair with molded jello desserts. Before you say that jello molds are all antique kitsch, let me be clear here and say that my love affair with jello molds isn't some retro-chic revival — it is an honest-to-goodness love story of me discovering the joys of jello for the first time as an adult and as a mother.
Sure, I had a few jello jigglers or the occasional snack-pack of jello in my lunch box as a kid, but neither of my grandmothers served molded jello salads or jello desserts (Cool Whip is another story entirely). I felt relatively neutral on jello until one day at the grocery store when my daughter asked if we could buy a box of blue jello. I said "yes" because the box was so cheap and I knew making it would entertain her on that dreary day. But some sparks flew in the making of the vibrant blue jelly. It was fun, easy, fast, and infinitely customizable. What followed was a year of gelatin desserts that made me fall in love with molded gelatin desserts.
First, what is a jello mold dessert?
Jello mold desserts are any sweet liquid — fruit juice, sparkling wine, or even sweetened condensed milk — thickened by gelatin and set in a mold. The mold can be anything from a small cup to a larger jello mold. Molded gelatin desserts can include fruit — fresh or dried — but this isn't required.
In medieval Europe where gelatin dishes were born, molded desserts were once considered a status symbol, as only the wealthy could afford the labor to produce time-intensive desserts. Industrial revolutions and changing social dynamics — specifically women who more frequently worked outside the home — made Jell-0 and gelatin desserts incredible popular in the 1950s and '60s. Many consider this to be the true heyday of molded jello desserts, when the flavored and sweetened packets of powdered gelatin dessert were often mixed with other canned products for ease and convenience.
Although I still occasionally indulge my daughter in a box of that brightly hued mix — hey, at 5 years old, she nearly makes it herself — I really learned to love molded gelatin desserts when I started using unflavored powdered gelatin to set unsweetened fruit juices, roasted fruit purées, and coconut milk with great success.
Pro tip: Once you fall in love with molded gelatin desserts, try to pick a favorite brand and stick with it. Each gelatin manufacturer has a particular protein formula, meaning that every brand sets just a bit differently. Get to know your favorite gelatin and how it gels, and you'll master gelatin mold desserts faster.
Jello molds are easy.
Can you heat water? I'm not even talking a full boil — I'm talking about bringing fruit juice to barely a simmer (you can even use the microwave). You can use plain, unflavored gelatin to set nearly any liquid from unsweetened fruit juice to fruit purée. This means you know exactly what your dessert will tastes like before it is even set. The same cannot be said for cakes. Molded gelatin desserts also require very little hands-on time — you bloom the gelatin, simmer your liquid, and then chill the whole thing. (Many take as little as 15 minutes.) Sure, they need several hours to set, but if you're hosting guests it gives you more time to mix up cocktails or tidy up the house.
Jello molds are great for all diets.
Once you learn the basic ratios for setting gelatin, you can customize the flavors of even the most basic jello desserts. We swapped coconut for cream in panna cotta, and now it's dairy-free but still creamy and luscious. Swap pomegranate juice for cranberry juice in a layered jello mold and you have a brand-new dessert without any guesswork.
There's no need for special flours or fancy milks since gelatin desserts are naturally gluten- and dairy-free. Molded jello desserts can also be made with vegetarian- and vegan-friendly gelatin alternatives. Most are available at many grocery stores. You can skip the sugar and use naturally sweet fruit juices or even sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.
They're cheap too! Gelatin desserts are inexpensive; serving for serving you can satisfy more guests for cents on the dollar for what it would cost to serve cake or ice cream.
You don't need any special equipment.
Jello molds are collectables for some folks, but you actually don't need any special mold for molded desserts. You can use a Bundt pan, a loaf pan, or even a mixing bowl to set large molded desserts, or small cups, ramekins, or even espresso cups for individual servings.
Gelatin mold desserts only require a few pieces of standard kitchen equipment, like measuring cups and mixing bowls. You don't even really need a stove, as you can heat the liquids in a microwave if needed. A refrigerator, however, is a non-negotiable necessity.
Jello mold desserts are fun!
Look, cake does not wiggle in a way that delights the young and old. It just doesn't. Colorful, jiggly, and shiny molded jello can be a playful dessert for family gatherings or beautiful centerpieces to bridal showers, hip happy hours, or even fancy dinner parties.
Here's my suggestion: Forget what you think you know about molded jello desserts (goodbye, lime salad!) and start by setting your favorite beverage, whether it be cold coffee or sparkling wine, with a little bit of gelatin for an everyday dessert. Next thing you know, you'll be writing an ode to jello mold desserts too.