Virgin Recipe: Jellied Gazpacho

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.

Jellied Gazpacho ingredients

Herbs and veggies – this actually kind of looks good…

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binder for this cold soup is bread (often stale bread is used, presumably as a way to avoid food waste), and that has been replaced by lemon Jell-O. Fresh garlic has been replaced here by garlic powder (the recipe calls for garlic salt, which I thought we had, but evidently Bryan bought the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.

4 oz. of canned mushrooms lying like slugs on a cutting board

Even Bryan, a mushroom fan, admitted that these canned ‘shrooms look like slugs

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…)

Your Humble Narrator dishing a chunky spoonful of Jellied Gazpacho out of a serving bowl

Dishing out a heaping helping of Gazpacho, Jell-O style

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.

Jelly residue in the bottom of the bowl

But in the end, was there really any reason for gazpacho to be jellied in the first place?

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.

A Possible Origin Story

ASquareMealI’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”.

Chinese man breaking apart chunks of frozen meat on a busy sidewalk while a decidedly Anglo older man looks on in disgust

Ancient Chinese food-handling techniques appall tourists in San Francisco, 1993

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…

 

Festive Ambrosia Mold

In a development that’s making Bryan none too happy, I’ve found myself starting to think in terms of familiar dishes that can be remade with Jell-O. Case in point, as I mentioned last week, my grandmother’s ambrosia. In case you’re interested, here’s my recipe:

  • 1 3-oz. package Island Pineapple flavor Jell-O
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 11-oz. can mandarin oranges, drained
  • 1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
  • 3/4 cup juice from canned fruit
  • 1 cup flaked coconut
  • 8 oz. sour cream
  • approx. half a 10-oz package white mini-marshmallows
  • maraschino cherries for garnish, if desired

Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water, add reserved juice. Chill over ice water bath until slightly thickened. Stir/whisk in sour cream. Continue chilling/thickening. While the Jell-O is thickening, lubricate a 6-cup mold; place cherries in bottom of mold. When Jell-O is thickened, fold in oranges, pineapple, coconut and marshmallows. Spoon carefully into mold, trying not to shove cherries around. (Good luck with that.) Refrigerate until set, at least four hours, or overnight. Unmold onto serving platter. There is no need to garnish further.

Old lady and four kids sitting on loudly-oatterned sofa

My grandmother and younger siblings, Christmas 1976

My grandmother made ambrosia (also known as ambrosia salad, or five-cup salad) for Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was always the five basic ingredients – sour cream, crushed pineapple, mandarin oranges, flaked coconut, and miniature marshmallows. She had a particular holiday-themed plastic dish that she used for serving it that had fluted sides, and for decoration she would place a maraschino cherry in each curve around the side and one in the center.

I know that there are a lot of variations on the recipe, and I got curious and did a bit of research. I discovered that I’m not the first person to do a Jell-O version, although the other ones I found tend to use orange Jell-O and omit the marshmallows. I found a couple of instances of people putting prepared Jell-O in ambrosia, such as this story from NPR, which I find frankly bizarre. The other instance – well, watch if you dare…

There are several options for the creamy dressing besides sour cream. I’ve seen a lot of recipes that call for Cool Whip, which is anathema as far as I’m concerned, but it seems to be very popular, either by itself or combined with some other creamy ingredient. Some recipes call for real whipped cream, which should be fine, though I suspect that would make the dish too sweet for my taste. Another variation is thinned and beaten cream cheese, often folded into whipped cream or Cool Whip. Health-conscious cooks use yogurt. Mayonnaise is mentioned, but rarely. I even found a recipe that omits the coconut and marshmallows but includes cottage cheese – one of those things that, once seen, cannot be unseen.

Of course, the greatest variety is in the fruit. While citrus and coconut are traditional, some people use canned fruit cocktail (ick), bananas, strawberries, dates, and much more. The fruit can be fresh, frozen, canned, or some combination thereof – whatever the cook likes and/or has on hand. Nuts are sometimes added as well, usually pecans or almonds.

Ambrosia Salad Mold recipe

Classic gelatin variant, from my mid-1980s vintage Betty Crocker Cookbook.

Heading further down the rabbit hole, I looked into the history (or perhaps a better term would be “evolution”) of ambrosia. This article lays it out pretty well (and is an enjoyable read if you have a few minutes), but I’ll summarize: Ambrosia got its start as a citrus fruit salad in the American South, where such fruits are native, not long after the end of the Civil War. The completion of the trans-continental railroad made it possible to include coconut, which was shipped to San Francisco from Hawaii. At that time, it was a simple layering of fruits, coconut, and sugar, sometimes dressed with fruit juice or sherry. Over time, this came to be served as a holiday treat, sometimes with cake and whipped cream. Starting in the 1920s, promotional recipes for a product called Whitman’s Marshmallow Whip (a sort of powdered marshmallow creme mix) introduced a new variation on the traditional fruit salad, and the creamy version was born. At about the same time, confectioners were inventing marshmallow candies that could be made in discrete pieces (the marshmallows we know today), and these were quickly incorporated into ambrosia recipes. The gelatin variation first made its appearance in 1950. By the time I was enjoying my grandmother’s ambrosia as a kid in the 1970s, its variants were legion.

photo of cover of "White Trash Cooking" by Ernest Matthew Mickler, and recipe for fi-ve-cup salad

Authentic Southern recipe, from an outstanding book of Southern cookery. If you read this and fail to develop affection for the South, you have no heart.

What’s kind of strange and interesting to me is that, although all of my general-purpose cookbooks include some sort of ambrosia recipe, ambrosia is considered to be primarily a Southern dish. It’s not often that I encounter someone up here in Yankeeland who grew up with ambrosia as a traditional holiday dish. In fact, I’ve encountered a good amount of snobbery about it. (For example, one Christmas at the home of one of Bryan’s mother’s sisters, her in-laws brought a large bowl of ambrosia salad, which was regarded with the ol’ hairy eyeball by Bryan’s mother’s family.) The thing is, I don’t have any Southern roots. My maternal ancestors came to Massachusetts from France with a generations-long stopover in Canada along the way. So how did both ambrosia and tourtières become part of the family holiday menu? My grandmother passed away some 20 years ago, so I guess this will have to remain a mystery.

Probably I will never have more than a tenuous grasp on the “white trash” in my background, but I can’t bring myself to disavow it, even though it’s not really something that I share with most of the people I know now, here in my life in Nerdvana. Besides, there’s no point being embarrassed or ashamed about something you can’t control. It’s one of those odd things that make me unique.

ring-molded ambrosia salad with a piece cut out of it

Festive Ambrosia Mold – it’s beginning to taste a lot like Christmas…

Anyway, to no one’s surprise, the Festive Ambrosia Mold turned out fine. The Jell-O simply gave shape and hold to a dish that would otherwise have been formlessly heaped in a bowl (preferably a fancy glass one, according to most of the videos I watched.).There are only a couple of small tweaks I might make. One, despite the pineapple flavor Jell-O, I don’t think there was quite enough crushed pineapple in this. Two, I really should have taken all the cherries in the jar and lined them up around the bottom of the ring mold, instead of trying to make a pattern based on the fluting. Better still, if I had used a mold with little round indentations in which the cherries could have sat. Maybe halve some cherries and place them on top of the Jell-O after it was unmolded? I suppose I could have cut up the cherries and incorporated them into the mixture, but my grandmother never did that. I think she would have approved of Festive Ambrosia Mold.

Recipe Reboot: Orange Pineapple Bavarian

This is one of those “reboot” recipes that I don’t remember at all – but that’s okay, because Orange Pineapple Bavarian is a perfectly pleasant dessert that I really don’t mind making again.

Orange Pineapple Bavarian ingredients

No honey…. no pecans… it’s a totally different recipe!

I got off to a bit of a rocky start with this one. Due to heat-induced confusion, I had Honey-Pecan Bavarian on the brain, so when Bryan and I went to the supermarket to get ingredients, I had a list of things I needed for Honey-Pecan Bavarian (which – spoiler alert! –  is up for a “memory lane” post in the near future). The only ingredient the two recipes have in common is boiling water, so back out in the steam-bath I went to fetch tinned mandarin orange bits and crushed pineapple.

Two drawers full of far too many boxes of Jell-O

The stash…

Orange Pineapple Bavarian calls for orange-pineapple or orange Jell-O. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing the orange-pineapple flavor around, but not lately, and since I’m getting tired of “orange” in a number of different ways, I decided to go with island pineapple, of which I have a few boxes in my Jell-O stash. (Yes, I have a Jell-O stash.) I figured the grated orange rind (grating citrus rind, even orange, is still a pleasant thing to do) and mandarin sections were sufficient to keep this true to the name of the recipe.

The prep on this was straightforward and at the same time involved enough that, with Pandora set to play my Galaxy New Radio channel, I could settle into my Zen happy place. I dissolved the Jell-O and two tablespoons of sugar in a cup of boiling water, added 3/4 cup of syrup from the tinned fruits and the grated orange rind, and thickened it a bit over an ice water bath. Meanwhile, I whipped up a packet of Dream Whip, folded three-quarters of that into the Jell-O (setting aside the rest for garnish), and when all that had thickened up more over the ice water bath I folded in the fruit.

Two-part photo, with the top part showing a quick run round the top with a pairing knife, and the bottom the gelatin coming out of the mold

Removing the Jell-O from the brain mold

Just to be weird, I went with the brain mold for this one. I haven’t used it in a while, and I was kind of thinking I could subtitle the recipe “Trump’s Brain”, but that doesn’t fit at all, because this Jell-O tastes nice and is as inoffensive as it could be. (Not that I have any idea what Donald Trump tastes like, but I imagine he tastes pretty nasty. Basting in spray tan for years probably doesn’t improve one’s flavor.) Also, as you may be able to see, despite the orange bits in it, the whole thing doesn’t look orange at all. Maybe it could be Melania’s brain instead.

One issue with the brain mold is that the gelatin tends to spread laterally rather soon after it’s been unmolded. It quickly loses its proper brain-y proportions, and the gray-matter wrinkles start smoothing out, so I recommend that if you’re going to serve a brain-shaped Jell-O, unmold it just before serving for the greatest visual impact on your guests.

Jell-O brain-molded and garnished with dollops of Dream Whip and fresh mint leaves

“Abby somebody…”

I feel like using the island pineapple flavor Jell-O was a good call. I like pineapple anyway, and that was the predominant flavor in the dish, so I was happy with it. The garnish turned out to be a little tricky, though. Day-old Dream Whip isn’t the easiest thing to work with, for starters. Then I started adding fresh mint leaves from our yard, all the while thinking, “This can’t get any more creepy, can it?”

Bryan ate it with a sort of martyred expression on his face, but admitted that it really wasn’t bad. The only issue I had with it was that I felt like something was missing – and I realized that, with a few additions and alterations, this could have been Jellied Ambrosia Salad. Ambrosia (as my grandmother called it, also known as Five-Cup Salad) is one of the things from my white-trash-y upbringing for which I still have a soft spot, so watch for Jellied Ambrosia in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, enjoy some classic brain-related humor….

Virgin Recipe: Peach-Banana Dessert

Okay, let me just start by saying that I’m feeling a little annoyed about this one. Not because it was so difficult – quite the opposite, in fact. After the last couple of weeks, it would have been kind of therapeutic to work on a recipe that’s a little more involved than this, something requiring a little more focus, to take me to my Zen happy place.

I paid more than usual attention to the Republican and Democratic conventions, and came out of it feeling as though I’d been worked over with a bad-cop-good-cop routine. In Jell-O terms, the Republican convention was Molded Ham and Egg Salad, and the Democratic convention was a rainbow Jell-O mold. The Republican convention was so dismal in tone and so badly run that it made the Democratic convention look almost too good by comparison. Tim Kaine’s goofy sweetness was a welcome change from, say, Chris Christie’s kangaroo court routine, or Ben Carson’s loopy speech in which he obliquely accused Hillary Clinton of Satan worship. I found Bill Clinton’s affectionate account of his life with Hillary touching even though it was hard to square with my memory of the Monica Lewinsky thing. I’m not usually susceptible to American patriotic optimism, but after four days of the Republicans shouting at us that we’re all doomed and Donald Trump alone can save us, it was a relief. I felt like Winston Smith having finally surrendered to Big Brother. And, to be clear, I don’t mean that in a good way.

I wish I could feel more excited about the fact that a woman has been nominated as a candidate for president of the United States. It’s historic, for us, but in this we’re behind a lot of other countries, from Great Britain to Pakistan. Also, Clinton hasn’t won yet. I’m afraid that if she does, she (and we) will have to endure sexism on a similar level to the racism we’ve seen aimed at President Obama for the last seven and a half years. On the other hand, the prospect of a Trump presidency is terrifying. Either way, the next four and a half years are going to be rough.

strawberry Jell-O with peach and banana slices in two stemless wine glasses

Peach-Banana Dessert in kittykat glasses. The left kittykat is “Frisky”, the right kittykat is “Lovey”.

And then there’s Peach-Banana Dessert, damn it – just another fruit-suspended-in-Jell-O. The ingredients are: one 3-ounce package strawberry Jell-O, one sliced banana, and one 1-pound can sliced peaches. As usual, the peaches presented a problem. One-pound cans now weigh 15.25 ounces. Sigh.

The preparation, quite typically, involves dissolving the powdered gelatin in a cup of boiling water and adding the syrup from the peaches plus water to equal a cup of cold liquid. The resulting liquid gelatin was still quite hot, but the directions say to pour it into dessert dishes and then add the fruit. I read this, and looked at my glass dessert dishes, and wondered if thermal shock was not a thing in 1974. Exploding glasses would not have made this more fun, so I thickened the gelatin over an ice water bath (also nice because the weather was hot and humid when I did this), stirred in the banana slices, put the gelatin into my kittykat wine glasses (a gift from my friend K–), and added the peaches. Voila!

This was definitely improved by the addition of whipped cream, but it was fine as is. The canned peaches turned out to be surprisingly decent (Del Monte brand, in case you’re curious), especially compared to the frozen peaches I used in Jellied Peach Melba. Peaches are difficult because it seems like the only way they’re really any good is if they’re fresh in season. To hear some people tell it, the only places you can get good peaches are Georgia and South Carolina. (Which state has the better peaches in the subject of religious debate.) The town where I grew up in western Massachusetts is home to a peach orchard or two, and I remember having good fresh peaches as a kid, so I know what I’m missing now.

The thing with fruit-in-Jell-O is that it always seems like a dessert for sick, elderly, or mentally ill people. It’s kind of funny that I think that now, because I remember as a kid liking Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail in it. There was something fascinating about canned fruit cocktail, that weird thing that happened to the grapes in the canning process, and the cherries actually seemed edible. Yet another reason to feel good about getting older…

Memory Lane: Mardi Gras Mold

MardiGrasMold_1-SMALL

Mardi Gras Mold, looking about as festive as I was probably feeling at the time

Every time I do a Memory Lane post, I have to hang my head in disappointment at how inadequate my notes are. For example, with Mardi Gras Mold, the recipe calls for “1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O Gelatin, any red flavor”. I neglected to note which red flavor I used, and it’s weird, now, how frustrating that is. I mean, that’s not an unimportant detail. The difference between strawberry, raspberry and cherry Jell-O is actually significant. No, really, it is.

I have a growing list of things that I would do if I had a time machine, and one of those things is going back to 2009 to give myself advice on doing this blog. Set up an editorial calendar and pace yourself! Take better notes! Add dates to your notes, for fuck’s sake! Come to think of it, if I could go back to 2009 and tell myself how to do this properly, I’d be well finished with it by now, and hopefully working on some other project. Of course, in that case, I wouldn’t be going back to 2009 to give myself advice, and, oh, damn those time travel paradoxes…

This is one of the sucky things about closing in on 50. I’ve been aware for quite a while that time speeds up as you get older, but it’s only now that I’m getting a sense of how little time I have left, and how little I’ve done with what I’ve had already. Now, sure, 50 isn’t all that old. It’s still safely within the zone of “middle age”. The problem is that most of the interesting stuff is meant to be done, or at least started, when you’re young, when you have peak energy and stamina, and joints that function silently without calling attention to themselves. According to The Life Script™, I’m supposed to be starting to bask in the glory of all that I’ve accomplished throughout my lifetime, receiving a chair or other token for career longevity, and having young grandchildren stay for sleepovers in my spacious suburban abode.

Well, I don’t have a house with spare bedrooms. I don’t have children (so no grandchildren). Thanks to a layoff and subsequent cross-country move, I’m not in MIT’s Quarter-Century Club (though I would be by now if things hadn’t gone a bit pear-shaped in 1998). I do have loads of memories and experiences – marriages, and travel, and getting to know some really excellent people. There’s still more, though, I know it.

I’m not sure what I did with my copy of The Life Script™. Most likely I left it behind at my father’s house when I moved out to go to college, along with a bunch of other stuff I didn’t care about. I’ve never missed it, particularly. I suspect that following it would have made me at least as miserable as it seemed to make my parents, especially since I’ve known from a young age that I want to live a less conventional life. It’s been an interesting 49-and-some years, but the “mid-life crisis” is a boring cliché for a reason. Everyone hits this point and thinks, “What’s next?” I don’t even have a blueprint for it, and letting things happen, as I’ve done all my life, seems rather counterintuitive at this stage. They say that the unexamined life is not worth living (hell, I’ve said it, and then gotten blamed for inspiring mayhem) but the examined life is certainly the longer, bumpier path.

Snuff Box intro image with Matt Berry's and Rich Fulcher's faces superimposed on British and American flags(In case anyone’s wondering, the tone of this post is largely down to the music I’m listening to while I write, which is the soundtrack to the short-lived British TV series Snuff Box. Snuff Box is brilliant, but practically the definition of dark comedy, and the music lends itself to regrets.)

Anyway…

According to my notes, Mardi Gras Mold did not taste of regret. (No, that would be Jellied Prune Whip.) In fact, I indicated that it “seems not unpleasant”. My only specific memory of it is that it was the start of me getting over a lifelong dislike of maraschino cherries. The recipe calls for a third of a cup of the buggers, diced, and while it’s not exactly ham-and-egg-in-Jell-O, I’m sure I had to gird my loins for this one. In fact, at the top of my notes (from when I was just starting to make the recipe) is the comment “Not enough maraschino cherries – so what?” My very last comment was “I wish I’d had enough cherries…” So there you go, a little bit of proof that growth and change are possible as we get older.

As you can see from the photo, the top layer is straight red gelatin, and the bottom layer is a bavarian. In this case, the recipe gives the option of using either Dream Whip or whipped heavy cream. (I went with the Dream Whip. Why? I don’t know…) Suspended in the bavarian layer are the above mentioned diced maraschino cherries and a quarter-cup of slivered blanched almonds. My notes say that “something is missing…”, but also that “nuts do not belong in Jell-O”, which seems pretty obvious when you think about it.

Like many of these layered desserts, the layers did not adhere well, which I attributed to the fact that the bavarian layer seemed to contain a large proportion of Dream Whip. Bryan enjoyed playing with it, though, and the flavor wasn’t too bad, so we gave it two “nasties”.

As for why it’s called Mardi Gras Mold, I’m still wondering about that. At my age, it’s good to know that life still holds a few mysteries…

Virgin Recipe: Fresh Strawberry Pie

With this one, I felt like I was finally doing something right – until I learned that today is National Ice Cream Day.

Oh well.

Fresh Strawberry Pie is the sort of no-bake dessert that uplifted the spirits of 1970s moms. Central air conditioning was less common in homes then than it is now, so summertime cuisine was heavy on things we think of as picnic or cookout food – salads instead of cooked vegetables or hot pasta dishes, potato chips instead of mashed or French fried potatoes, meats cooked outside on the grill (by Dad, usually), and of course no-bake desserts. Anything to avoid heating up the kitchen, which I understand completely because Freak Mountain has no air conditioning of any sort.

pie plate with chocolate crumb crust

With a Strawberry Pie, a chocolate crumb crust is only logical

The crust can be either a regular pie shell or a crumb crust, and when temperatures are in the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celcius) as they’ve been this weekend, bashing up some cookies and mixing them with melted butter is a damn good option. I was going to make a chocolate crumb crust using Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers and Nilla Wafers per Mother Wonderful’s Cheesecake and Other Goodies (my go-to cheesecake recipe book for the last 25 years) but while we were in the supermarket I gave in to the temptation to try a crust made with Oreos instead, because that seemed like it would be more true to the Project somehow. It turned out really well. The main problem was that I only needed two thirds of the package of Oreos for the crust, leaving a third of a package of Oreos for, well, lunch. Okay, I didn’t eat all of them, and I ate them with the leftover strawberries, so that cancels out some of the calories, right?

pie plate with chocolate crumb crust and strawberry bavarian layer

Strawberry bavarian, failing to mound

Heat like we’ve been having this weekend seemed like it might make the Jell-O part a little trickier. The pie filling goes in two parts, a Cool Whip bavarian made with half of the Jell-O that goes on top of the crust, and then the remainder of the Jell-O combined with fresh strawberries which goes into the middle of the pie. I used the ice water bath technique to thicken the bavarian part (another reason this recipe is nice to do in hot weather) but it wouldn’t thicken up to the “mounding” stage for some reason. I thought maybe it had to do with the heat, since the ice was melting quickly in the water. Should I have used more ice? Salted the water? Anyway, it didn’t work as described in the recipe, but it worked well enough. One odd addition to this part of the recipe is red food coloring. The recipe calls for a few drops, so I added four. It made absolutely no difference whatsoever. Now I’m getting chills thinking of all the kids of my generation who unwittingly ingested an unnecessary dose of Red Dye #2 with this.

The Jell-O/strawberry part (thickened over a fresh ice water bath) went just the way it was supposed to and ended up floating nicely on the bavarian in the center of the pie.

the finished pie - chocolate crumb crust, strawberry bavarian and Jell-O/strawberries in the center

Fresh Strawberry Pie looks like a bit of all right

I seem to be developing the habit of going to the gym to lift before tasting my Jell-O creations so that I come at them hungry. That probably wasn’t necessary with this recipe, but it certainly didn’t hurt (especially after all those Oreos I ate yesterday). The bavarian part firmed up more in the refrigerator overnight, so I was able to get a fairly clean slice. Since I had leftover Cool Whip, I decided to garnish my slice with one of those famous Cool Whip dollops – and discovered that it was softer than Cool Whip should be. Aha! Maybe the bavarian’s refusal to set up completely wasn’t my fault after all.

slice of the pie with a dollop of Cool Whip on top

Come on, is there really such a thing as too much Cool Whip? (Well, yes, actually…)

For eating, this is reasonably pleasant. I think I’ve remarked before that strawberry is one of the less offensive artificial flavors, and it goes well with cream, even fake cream. The real strawberries make the whole thing more refreshing. My main quibble is that the Oreo crust is too sweet, but that’s totally my fault. (And Bryan remarked that it seems silly to complain that the cookie crust of your Jell-O pie is too sweet.) I would go for the wafer cookie crust if I was going to make this again. To be honest, that’s unlikely, given how nutritionally questionable this is, but I do think we’ll end up eating all of this particular pie.

That said, this relatively nice one was certainly welcome at the end of what turned out to be another crazy week. I’m starting to feel leery even of NPR (and I’ve been an NPR junkie for 30 years), and I’m doing whatever I can to keep my spirits up. The Project is helping, and so is the gym. (Lifting is a meditative activity for me because of the focus I need to bring to it.) We’ve been loading up on the British comedies, and I’ve been mainlining Loose Tapestries, ELO and early Pink Floyd, staying hopped up on whimsy. The 1970s are making more and more sense to me…

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