No, not this Bubble:
Unlike Eddie Monsoon’s personal assistant, Melon Bubble is a deceptively simple-looking recipe, consisting mainly of melon balls suspended in Jell-O. I went into this expecting it to be a bit of a dawdle, but found it to be pleasantly involving.
First, I had to make the melon balls. I chose this “baby watermelon” partly on the basis of the possible visual impact of deep pink balls in lemon Jell-O, and partly because every goddamn fruit salad I order in a restaurant is half cantaloupe and honeydew chunks, so I’m tired of those melons – but largely because our summer weather hasn’t let up yet, and despite the drought I’m happy enough for summer to last as long as possible.
That was really the only discretion I had in the recipe. Otherwise, the Jell-O is prepared as usual, but with 1/4 cup of cold water replaced by 1/4 cup of Cointreau. I set aside 2/3 cup of the liquid Jell-O, thickened the remaining 1 1/3 cup, added the watermelon balls, put the Jell-O/balls in serving glasses, and popped the lot in the fridge. Then, the fun part – I thickened the 2/3 cup Jell-O a little bit, then went to town with my trusty Mixmaster Junior until it was thick and fluffy. The fluff went on top of the Jell-O/balls, et voila! Melon Bubble á la Freak Mountain.
I was happy with the way it turned out, visually, but Bryan (who is red/green colorblind) remarked that it looked as though some giant alien frogs had laid tadpole eggs in our dessert glasses. Ew.
Luckily, it takes more than that to put me off my food. For eating, Melon Bubble is pretty good. The Cointreau cuts the sweetness of the Jell-O and adds a nice complexity to the flavor of the dish – which didn’t really surprise me, since I’ve found that to be the case with other Jell-O recipes that include some sort of alcoholic beverage. Alcohol turns Jell-O into a grownup dessert, and the tart orange flavor of the Cointreau made the lemon Jell-O downright refreshing. The mild taste of the watermelon was a nice contrast here. The aftertaste is actually rather nice, as well.
I liked the Jell-O foam on top (the stuff fascinates me for some reason) but Bryan groused that it was “too stiff”. I think he was expecting it to have a more creamy texture, probably an expectation set by all the bavarians we’ve been having lately.
My only regret with this one is that I don’t have a glass serving dish, because I think this would have looked better in a large dish rather than in individual glasses. There’s another one coming up that would do well with a glass serving dish presentation, so maybe we’ll head up to the Cambridge Antique Market sometime soon…
This week, in Recipes for the Post-Apocalypse….
Just kidding. Kind of. You may notice in the photo that the two boxes of cherry Jell-O look different. The one in the back was pulled from my stash, and the one in front was purchased yesterday. I had never thought about the shelf-life of Jell-O before, so out of curiosity, I examined the older box, and discovered a use-by date: October 29, 2011.
Would it really be dangerous to use a packet of Jell-O five years after its ostensible expiry? I turned to Mr. Google. I was not the first person to have this question, and among the answers the consensus seems to be that powdered Jell-O can last indefinitely when stored in a cool, dry place. It isn’t so much that the contents go bad, but if the packaging breaks down and moisture gets in, mold can grow and make the gelatin unsafe to eat.
I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve been playing some of the games in the Fallout franchise. The game world is an alternate-history United States, many decades after a nuclear war with China that occurs in 2077. One of the tasks the player-character performs is collecting food that can be used to restore health points, and along with the meat of various creatures that the player has to kill in the Wasteland, there are a lot of 21st-century leftovers lying around, somehow still safe to eat (if slightly radioactive). So now I’m wondering – where’s all the Jell-O? If Nuka Cola, Cram (tinned meat) and potato crisps are still edible 200 years on, there should be some Jell-O (or maybe “Gel-Oh!”) out there for the scavenging.
Well, I’m better at making Jell-O than I am at playing those games (I enjoy them, but I suck at them, and I cheat a bit because I don’t want to have to die a million times to see how the stories go), so – Cherry Chiffon.
Armed with my new knowledge of the shelf-life of Jell-O, I opened the old packet, and recognized some clumping as a sign that moisture had gotten in. (Freak Mountain is barely climate-controlled.) Into the bin it went. Luckily, I’d bought a few new packages of the cherry flavor, because the recipe calls for two, one for each layer.
The first layer is just cherry Jell-O with canned dark sweet cherries (one 8.75-oz. can) suspended in it. It turned out that my options at the supermarket for canned cherries were limited to the brand and size I bought; at 15 ounces, I have some leftovers. I’m not sure what to do with them, because I don’t really care for canned cherries, much as I’ve never liked maraschino cherries. One interesting thing about being a grownup is that you develop the ability to, well, be a grownup about eating things that you don’t care for, as long as they’re in small quantities, but six ounces of canned cherries are more of a challenge.
I may attempt this recipe for Oreo Soup from one of my absolute favorite books, a sort of anthology/art/coffee table book called Junk Food. Stay tuned….
The second layer is a simple bavarian of cherry Jell-O and 4.5 ounces of Cool Whip. Since the smallest available container of Cool Whip is eight ounces, I have some of that left over, which is handy, because if I make the Oreo Soup, I can use the leftover Oreo wafers and Cool Whip for Almond Joy Creme Pie, which appears a couple of pages after Oreo Soup in Junk Food. It just never ends, does it?
Something I was really iffy about when making Cherry Chiffon was the order of the layering. It seemed to me a bad idea have the gelatin layer on top. In my experience, the bavarians tend to be softer and less dense than the straight gelatin, so not exactly the best base for a Jell-O mold. Still, I went ahead with the recipe per the instructions, figuring that if the bavarian layer collapsed under the weight of the gelatin layer, I’d at least get to bitch about it on the internet.
I went about unmolding the Cherry Chiffon expecting the worst. What I ended up with was – a perfectly firm Jell-O mold. The bavarian layer turned out much firmer than I’d expected. The layers even seemed to be adhering to each other. I had thought that even if the bavarian layer held up, the gelatin layer might slide off, a distinct possibility given how slant-wise the layers came out. (We live in a crooked little house; nothing at Freak Mountain is level.)
Cherry Chiffon is far from the worst Jell-O I’ve made so far, but I don’t exactly love it. The Pepto-pink color of the bavarian layer is off-putting, as is the cough-drop cherry flavor. The canned cherries aren’t all that bad, but taste-wise they’re overwhelmed by the artificial cherry flavor of the Jell-O, and their texture is kind of icky.
I wish I could say I won’t be making this again, but there’s a Strawberry Chiffon variant coming up later on in the calendar. At least there’s no such thing as canned strawberries.
It’s funny how often a simple Jell-O dish can raise sticky questions. Jellied Ginger Upper gave me a weird sort of deja vu. I couldn’t remember, or find any evidence of, having made this before, making the “reboot” status of this one a little shaky. At the same time, I remembered making a Jell-O recipe that included ginger ale. Was it this one? I did a little digging and found that, nope, it was Ginger Peach Dessert. I can’t imagine why I was confused.
So this is one of those simple ones, and I think it was the right one for this long holiday weekend. Apart from boiling water and a little lemon juice, the only ingredients are Jell-O (“any red flavor”), diced peaches or pears (canned or fresh), and ginger ale.
As you can see in the photo, I went for fresh pears. It turned out that one pear was enough for the recipe, so I had the other one for a snack. It’s hard to feel strongly about pears one way or another. They have such a light flavor that they often get used as filler with (or instead of) apples, but I guess sometimes you just want a bit of lightly sweet fiber in your diet. (Or Babycham.)
The ginger ale was another ingredient that might have been ripe for tinkering, had I not already done it with the Ginger Peach Dessert. I had assumed that ginger ale would have too mild a flavor, and substituted ginger beer. Normally Bryan and I really like ginger beer (the more gingery the better, preferably spicy enough to make us sneeze) but it turned out that it didn’t go well with Jell-O. Live and learn.
In this case, it turned out that ginger ale does go well with raspberry Jell-O. The flavor of the soda (or “tawnic”, as my mother-in-law would say) is subtle but recognizable. The mildness of the pears was a good fit, and anyway, peaches would have made it almost a repeat of Jellied Peach Melba. One interesting similarity that I noticed between Jellied Ginger Upper and Ginger Peach Dessert is a somewhat soft-set texture. The gelatin is firm enough to hold a molded shape, but the mouthfeel is softer than one might expect. I wonder if that has anything to do with the carbonation of the ginger ale, although since it gets added to the hot Jell-O liquid, I would think that the carbon dioxide would outgas quickly (and the mixture did get quite foamy as I slowly poured in the ginger ale) and not leave much in the way of bubbles to affect the texture of the set gelatin.
Possibly I need to do further research on this. It occurred to me that another direction to go with off-book gelatin dishes might be soda-flavored jellies, which could be fun, and it could be interesting to see whether it’s the carbonation affecting the texture. Stay tuned!
One final note: The recipe for Jellied Ginger Upper recommends garnishing with Frosted Fresh Grapes. To which I say, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; er, won’t get fooled again…
It seems like I’ve been spending a lot of time on Memory Lane lately. It might be a function of the Big Five-Oh looming in the not-too-distant future, or it may be because I’m working my way through A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (which is an interesting, if not exactly uplifting, read), or it may be because I’ve been spending so much time listening to my Galaxy News Radio channel and thinking about the evolution of American popular music, but I feel like I’m looking back a lot – not wistfully, but trying to get a better sense of my place on the continuum. For a long time I’ve had this notion that life is a puzzle that makes more sense as you find and slot in the pieces, and the past is a good place to go looking for puzzle pieces.
Last Sunday morning I found this tweet in my timeline:
The person Steve Martin was retweeting has apparently just discovered Martin’s old standup material, which is great (oh, to be able to hear “King Tut” for the first time again!), but it looks like he jumped to the conclusion that because it’s new to him, it must have been forgotten by everyone else. Mentioning Martin in his tweet really put the icing on this faux pas. Maybe he thought he was doing him a favor.
Jay seems to lack a sense of himself in relation to history. Perhaps, like a lot of young people today, he thinks that the past is irrelevant to him because things have changed so much, so fast. It didn’t occur to him that there’s a generation or two before him who remember Steve Martin’s earlier work and consider it hugely influential, even (as many replies to his tweet noted) legendary – and who may be among Martin’s 7.7 million Twitter followers. In this internet age, it would have been easy enough to discover the foundation of Martin’s enduring success (which certainly doesn’t indicate an “underrated” early career), but Jay’s reference point was himself, and he mistakenly thought that was sufficient.
But enough of this “get off of my lawn” stuff…
Where was I? Oh, yes, Honey Pecan Bavarian. I don’t remember this one at all. In fact, the photo I uploaded initially turned out to be not Honey Pecan Bavarian, which I only realized after reading the recipe for reference.
Going by my notes, I was psyched to make this one because it contains “REAL CREAM”, which I can imagine would have seemed like a huge relief after recipes involving Cool Whip, Dream Whip, and mayonnaise. The Jell-O is strawberry flavor, which apparently goes well with honey, although in hindsight I am dubious. I indicated that the honey flavor “is pretty strong”, so I guess you have to like honey if you’re going to make this one.
A tip for anyone who decides to try to make this – the recipe says to “stir carefully” when adding the cream to the thickened gelatin; I found that beating the cream into the gelatin worked better. However, careful stirring is probably the way to go with the pecans. Pecans? Yes, though I remarked that “nuts still don’t belong in Jell-O”.
The pieces remained intact when I served them, which is always a good feature in a Jell-O mold. Bryan didn’t like the smell, and I concurred, noting that “it does smell a little like ass”. He couldn’t finish his portion, and couldn’t explain why (which may not mean that much, really), but I didn’t think it was that bad.
Still, I’m just as glad I didn’t have to make this again. I may have forgotten it, but at least I wasn’t doomed to repeat it.
A few days ago I heard on the news that the second-to-last Howard Johnson’s restaurant was about to close. My first reaction was – there are still Howard Johnson’s restaurants out there?
Howard Johnson’s got its start as a soda fountain in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1925, somewhat improbably expanded into a chain of restaurants during the Great Depression, and became a pioneer in American road food as the automobile became King of the 20th Century. For decades, families on road trips would see an iconic orange tiled roof and know that they could get a good sit-down meal with 28 flavors of ice cream to choose from for dessert. During the 1980s, the Howard Johnson’s brand was sold and passed from conglomerate to conglomerate, while interstate highway rest stops were taken over by fast food chains, and HoJo’s restaurants went on a steady decline. On September 6, 2016, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Bangor, ME will close, leaving only one restaurant in Lake George, NY to carry on the legacy.
My family seldom traveled, and most of the few trips we took were within Massachusetts (except for one summer week when the seven of us crammed ourselves into a neighbor’s tiny vacation cottage in New Hampshire) so I don’t really have any childhood memories of “road food”. My HoJo’s memories involve the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Times Square in New York City. I went there twice.
The first time was in the summer of 1977. Fellow older people and/or history buffs will recognize that as the summer when the New York City police were hunting down the serial killer known as Son of Sam. It was also a low point for NYC generally, but for some reason, my grandmother decided it would be neat for her and me to spend a couple of days there with a friend of hers and her friend’s granddaughter.
Actually, I enjoyed spending time with my grandmother, and it was a fun trip. I remember that we stayed at the Taft Hotel, which must have been this one in Times Square. The centerpiece of the trip was seeing the original Broadway production of Annie (with Andrea McArdle in the title role), and we also did a bit of sight-seeing, going up to the observatory in the Empire State Building and visiting the Statue of Liberty (although we didn’t go up to the crown, presumably due to the lack of elevators). I remember that I had never been on a train before so I really wanted to ride the subway, but my grandmother refused, insisting that it was too dangerous.
Since it was almost 40 years ago, my memories of the trip are hazy, but one of the few clear memories I have is of having supper at the Howard Johnson’s. In particular, I remember the part where I ordered dessert. I wanted ice cream, and growing up in the Friendly’s company town, I naturally assumed that all other restaurants only had a few flavors of ice cream – chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and maybe one or two others. Unaware that HoJo’s were famous for their 28 flavors, I asked the waitress what they had, and she patiently starting going down the list, from memory. (Belately, I am impressed.) Luckily, peppermint stick was near the top, and since that was my favorite, I stopped her there.
Another thing I remember is almost getting hit by a cab. It was the first time, but not the last.
The second time I went to the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square was while Bryan and I were living in Brooklyn. We were living in a tiny, noisy, leaky, roach-infested shithole of an apartment in a still-gentrifying part of Park Slope, saving up to get out, and trying to make the best of our New York experience in whatever ways we could. It was probably late 2004 or early 2005 when we heard that the restaurant, one of the last old-school holdouts in the shiny new post-Guiliani Times Square, would be closing, and we decided that we had to go.
It looked as though it hadn’t changed since it opened in 1959, and it probably hadn’t, all dark wood paneling and burnt-orange vinyl. Almost certainly it was just the same as when I went there with my grandmother in 1977. We had the signature clam strips, and ice cream for dessert. Mine was peppermint stick.
In late April 2005, the Times Square Howard Johnson’s closed.
It’s not that I want them back so much, but it’s important to know that these things existed. When we forget history we’re doomed to repeat it, yes, but it’s useful to remember where we’ve been as we move on to where we’re going. Also, it’s good to be aware of our place in history. Each of us is part of a bigger picture, a picture that includes David Berkowitz and clam strips…
I have to say, after a few “scary” Jell-O recipes that turned out to be not so scary, I was really hoping that Jellied Gazpacho would turn out to be fairly nasty. Oh, yes. I had all kinds of plans for this one. First, there was the drinks pairing – my first instinct (a very wrong one, I know) was to go for Corona, or tequila, or a Mexican boilermaker. (Yes, that’s a thing.) Then I decided to look up the origin of gazpacho and found that it comes from Andalusia, arguably the most historically and culturally important part of Spain, so I didn’t want to treat it like a common Tex-Mex side dish.
I remembered that a batch of gazpacho had figured prominently in Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The gazpacho had been spiked with something – my recollection was that it was vodka (which you have to admit would be pretty good), but when I looked it up I found that it was sleeping pills. That didn’t seem like a good idea, and I ended up scrapping the drinks pairing altogether.
If we’re being honest, it’s hard to bash Jellied Gazpacho for the ingredients. It’s mostly fresh vegetables and herbs. The traditional binder for this cold soup is bread (often stale bread is used, presumably as a way to avoid food waste), and that has been replaced by lemon Jell-O. Fresh garlic has been replaced here by garlic powder (the recipe calls for garlic salt, which I thought we had, but evidently Bryan bought the powder instead), but at least the flavor is there.
The one ingredient I was seriously dreading was the canned mushrooms. I’ve always disliked mushrooms, in particular the canned ones, which develop an unpleasant mouthfeel in the canning process. I’ve tried to learn to like fresh mushrooms, without much success, so I didn’t see any real reason to substitute them for the canned ones here.
Jellied Gazpacho should have been a pleasure to make, given all the lovely chopping of lovely fresh ingredients, but the prep work on this was an annoying experience. It turns out that Bryan has been slacking on the knife-sharpening duties. You see, years ago he decided that he was something of a “foodie”, and one of the foodie toys he picked up for himself was a professional-grade knife sharpening kit. We have a decent set of Henckels knives, and keeping them sharp is definitely worthwhile – but perhaps more of a commitment than Bryan was prepared to make.
To be fair, the dull knives did make the prep work feel more “authentically 1974”. Before the Food Network put professional chefs in our faces, your average mid-century middle-class or working-class homemaker probably wasn’t aware of the importance of keeping knives sharp. Knives would get dull (probably weren’t that sharp to begin with), and she’d just operate on the assumption that chopping vegetables was a lot of slow drudgery, Maybe she’d get suckered into buying the Ginsu knife before deciding that fresh vegetables are too much trouble to do for anything other than special occasions.
(Looking into this a little, I’m thinking that “the decline of knife sharpening” could easily become its own post. But I digress…)
Apart from the vegetable chopping, making this recipe is pretty simple. Once the veggies are chopped, they’re combined with the seasonings and left to sit and marinate while a double batch of lemon Jell-O is prepared and thickened. Then, the veggies and Jell-O are combined, chilled to thicken a bit more, et voila! Jellied Gazpacho.
This is a “loose” gelatin dish, which was a bit disappointing because in the back of my mind I had been anticipating another molded one, which would have been more of a challenge. Another disappointment – this one didn’t taste bad at all. I had been hoping for a nasty one to give the blog a bit of, you know, conflict, but I had been able to chop the mushrooms up finely enough that they weren’t really noticeable, and between the vegetables and the seasoning there were enough savory flavors that the sweet lemon flavor of the Jell-O was barely detectable.
The main issue I had was with the texture. The gelatin just did not add a nice texture to this cold soup, and the veggies were a bit buoyant in it, so I wound up with a fair amount of seasoned lemon Jell-O in the bottom of my bowl as I ate this. I decided to try running the Jellied Gazpacho through a few pulses in the Cuisinart, and that actually helped. The whole thing seemed to be blended better, and it stayed blended. We even managed to eat some for supper (with a fresh baguette and butter, and a Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate cake for dessert). Still, even though I finished my portion (Bryan didn’t), I didn’t want any more.
I could see myself making gazpacho again, but with a more traditional recipe, using bread as a binder. Using Jell-O did not in any way enhance or improve on the concept. It didn’t make it all that weird or scary, either. It was just “meh”. A donation is being made to Action Against Hunger because somebody should be getting some kind of satisfaction out of this.
I’ve been taking a “staycation” this week, just hanging around the house, getting a few useful things done, and listening to my favorite NPR station. WBUR airs a lot of talk programming that I like to listen to while I do housework, and this week I’m hearing programs that are oddly relevant to me. Yesterday, it was an hour of “On Point” about the history of exhaustion. On Monday on “Fresh Air”, Terry Gross interviewed a couple who’ve written a book about food during the Great Depression.
As I listened to Gross’s guests describe the thrifty, filling, and bland cuisine promoted by the U.S. government during the Depression, I was struck by the similarity of what they were describing to the recipes I’ve been making during the course of the Project. At some point, the proverbial light bulb clicked on in my head, and I realized that The New Joys of Jell-O and its ilk are direct descendants of Depression-era cuisine.
I’ve made a number of wise-cracks about General Foods food scientists, possibly on drugs, trying to screw around with the average American housewife by coming up with bizarre recipes containing Jell-O. I feel a little bad about that now. I haven’t read A Square Meal… yet (just downloaded it from Amazon), but based on what I’ve heard so far, my theory is that even as late as the 1970s our cuisine was heavily informed by Depression-era notions about food.
To illustrate, my grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression, and having grown up poor in a large family, she would have been particularly receptive to a style of cooking that was inexpensive, filling, and held to be nutritious by modern food scientists. Naturally she would have passed that along to my mother, and my mother, who had a fairly large family of her own to feed during the economically troubled 1970s, would have seen no reason to deviate from the old cookbook. I mostly accepted that style of cooking until I started watching Julia Child, who offered a look at how cooking could be different, and when I went to university I had greater freedom and opportunity to explore other cuisines.
Researching this further, I found this Serious Eats article about the history of the Jell-O salad. My theory is pretty good, but fails to account for WWII, when the food science that had been touted as a solution to hunger during the Depression was repurposed to feed the troops. After the war, the food processing industry was disinclined to scale back to earlier peacetime levels, so it geared up to (create, and then) meet the needs of American housewives. That had a lot to do with perpetuating that style of cooking, but I suspect it was an easier sell to people who had grown accustomed to eating that sort of food during the Depression. Otherwise, you have to wonder whether the food processing industry would have dared to foist some of their weird, bland creations on the nation.
As it turns out, the blandness and the weirdness of the recipes developed during the Depression were both intentional. For one thing, it was believed that spicy foods were stimulants along the lines of caffeine, alcohol, and harder drugs. For another, from a policy standpoint, the home economists developing this way of cooking didn’t expect people to enjoy it; the idea was to make sure that while poor people should feel full and nourished, they should also want to go out and get jobs so that they could afford better food. Perhaps the least palatable rationale from our modern standpoint, Depression-era cuisine purposely eschewed immigrant cuisines because they had no basis in food science and were “un-American”.
When I heard that, I was reminded of my parents’ general aversion to ethnic food. Not only was ethnic food not prepared in our home (unless it was, say, La Choy canned “Chinese” food, or Ortega prepackaged “Mexican”), but also, we never went out for it. When we went out to eat, it was to Mr. Steak or to Abdow’s Big Boy. In particular, we avoided Chinese restaurants, because my father claimed that one time, when doing a plumbing job at a Chinese restaurant, he’d seen workers chopping food on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor. (Not that my father wasn’t racist, but something I witnessed on my first trip to San Francisco in 1993 lends credence to his story.) My father also claimed that his stomach was too sensitive for spicy food (but somehow it didn’t have trouble with the scotch-rocks he drank every night after work).
Now I’m going to have to be mindful of this history as I proceed with the Project. The recipes may be weird and sometimes scary, and the photos may be rather grotesque and hilarious, but many of these recipes were originated by people who were trying to do their best, with the best information they had available to them, at a desperately difficult time. In the early days of food science, this kind of cooking was considered “high tech”. Take a moment to think about how attached we, in this truly modern era, have become to our own tech…