Monthly Archives: July, 2014

Memory Lane – Frosted Fresh Grapes

Originally posted September 8, 2009

I’m able to write this from memory, without any notes (this was an early point in the Project, before I’d started making notes), because this sticks out in my mind as one of the dopier recipes in the book. At first, I kind of dug the concept, pretty sugar-frosted grapes that look like this:


Not made by me. Obviously.

Frosted Fresh Grapes is a recipe from a bygone era – an era in which people didn’t have to worry so much about raw egg being contaminated with salmonella. It says to lightly beat an egg white, dip the grapes in the egg white to lightly coat them, and then dip them in lemon Jell-O powder to frost them. Now, maybe that was kosher in 1974, but this 2009 lady was not going to eat grapes dipped in raw egg white*.

There is such a thing as powdered egg white. It’s pasteurized, therefore safe. No salmonella**. The idea is to just add water, and voila! Egg whites! If only it really was that easy. The powder did not dissolve readily. In fact, I seem to recall that it never did fully dissolve, but after a while I wound up with a liquid that seemed to be the consistency of egg whites, so I went ahead with the dipping process.


So very sad…

It did not go well. The egg white was very drippy and didn’t seem to want to form a thin, smooth coat on the grapes. As a consequence, the dry Jell-O went on as a lumpy, uneven coat, and of course the reservoir of powder developed lumps that made it more difficult to work with. It was a frustrating process, and the results weren’t pretty.

Reading a Food Network recipe for sugar frosted grapes as I was writing this, I felt a bit foolish. Dip all the grapes at once, swish ’em around, and then strain off the excess? Of course. Tumble the moistened grapes in the sugar like Shake’n’Bake? Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?

Then again, who eats this stuff, anyway? Last I heard, grapes are nature’s Skittles.

* The astute and careful reader will note, eventually, that there are recipes involving egg whites beaten into meringue but not cooked that I have not only prepared from raw eggs but also eaten. All I can say is, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

** I’m thinking about this too much. “Salmonella” sounds like the name of a character in some benighted sequel to “Finding Nemo”.

Recipe Repost – Bavarois de Pêche du Mont Phénomène (Peach Bavarian)

Originally posted August 26, 2009

creamy Jell-O mold with pink flamingos

Peach Bavarian a la Freak Mountain

Ah, well, as you can see, the unmolding was a success. I still wish I had some proper gelatin molds, because I think this would have looked better in the shape of a fluted mini-tower. I’m already getting tired of the bundt pattern. The flamingos lend it a classy touch, though – food styling by Archie McPhee.

I’ve always been intrigued by this sort of dessert. There’s something so appealing – I’d almost go as far as to say “sexy” – about its light, creamy appearance, and I always imagine it’s going to taste like a cool, sweet cloud. I don’t think I’ve ever had a traditional Bavarian, but this version is not particularly light. As I said yesterday, I like the lemon/almond flavor, and I would say that it does taste light, but there’s a heaviness, not a richness so much as plain old weight, about the Cool Whip. As I ate it, I got the sense that possibly it was reconstituting itself into a lump of vegetable fats and high-fructose corn syrup in my stomach. The canned peaches weren’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, but I wish they had asserted their flavor more, because peaches and cream is such a delightful combination. I also wish I’d been able to dice them finer, but their texture didn’t lend itself to that. I would’ve ended up with mush if I’d tried.

All in all, it wasn’t too bad. It reminded me of the ambrosia salad (some of you may know this as five-cup salad) that my grandmother used to make for holidays. Ambrosia salad consists simply of sour cream, flaked coconut, crushed pineapple, mandarin oranges, and miniature marshmallows, which must be white, because with the colored ones it’s just disgusting. It can be garnished with maraschino cherries, but I don’t like maraschino cherries. I still like ambrosia salad, but I’m just about the only one I know who does. I’ve tried making it for parties, and I usually end up eating it myself for days afterward because everybody else turns his nose up at it. Anyway, the marshmallows act as a binding agent, and their texture once they’ve soaked up the moisture from the sour cream and fruit is what is recalled by the Bavarian. Take that as you will.

Bryan eating Peach Bavarian and pulling faces

Bryan is like the “Mikey” of Jell-O

Not everyone was so keen. Here’s a candid snapshot of Bryan eating his Bavarois de Pêche du Mont Phénomène. This was the expression on his face for most of the time he was eating it. I had to promise him that if he finished that dish I wouldn’t make him eat any more. I may have to bring the rest to work. That could be good for a laugh…

Going Back

I’m taking a “staycation” this week, and apart from making hay while the sun shines (i.e., assembling files for upcoming Jell-O posts), the high point of my week has been going to see Queen + Adam Lambert in Boston on Tuesday. I’ve been a fan since I was 13 years old, and for many years I’ve been shameless about repeating the story of how I missed my chance to see Queen when they last toured the U.S. in 1982, when I was 15. They were scheduled to play the New Haven Coliseum (such is the mentality of western Massachusetts that we would consider going to a concert in New Haven rather than in Boston, where they were also playing), and my best friend’s boyfriend, a few years older than us, was poised to get tickets, but then my father forbade me to go. I was too young, the reasoning went, and New Haven was too dangerous. Never mind that the boyfriend was and still is a big, intimidating-looking guy (when we were young he bore an uncanny resemblance to Andre the Giant) and odds are we would have been fine. But I was a mostly obedient child, and I didn’t go, and then Freddie Mercury passed away nine years later, and not defying my father in that instance is one of the big regrets of my life.

Dr. Biran May noodles on his Red Special at the Garden, July 22, 2014

Dr. Biran May noodles on his Red Special at the Garden, July 22, 2014

So the next best thing to acquiring a time machine was to see them on their current tour. I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be even close to what seeing the original band 32 years ago would have been like, and while I enjoyed the show, it was an odd experience. I tried to enjoy it for what it was in the here and now, but it was hard not to compare to their 1979 live album or to the concert videos I’ve seen. On the other hand, Brian May and Roger Taylor have grown into darling old men who can still rock hard, something driven home by a video of archival footage that played above the stage while Taylor sang “These Are the Days of Our Lives”. It reminded me of going through the photo albums at D–‘s house last weekend. At the same time, there was a sense of passing the torch as they were fronted by Adam Lambert, who was born the year I missed my big chance, and supported on drums by Taylor’s son Rufus Tiger Taylor. (Father and son had a drum duel that was a highlight of the show.) Regardless of all this, I got to sing “Love of My Life” along with Brian May, and that was awesome.

Strange as it may seem, I think there is a connection between seeing the concert and taking up the Jell-O blog again. When I first started blogging about Jell-O, I was open about the fact that there was a certain amount of nostalgia involved in the Project, and while that’s also the case with this reboot, I think there’s more to it than that. It isn’t just a “sentimental longing or wistful affection” (as Google puts it) that I have for that weird time when I was a kid. The 1970s were nobody’s halcyon days. There was disillusionment and malaise, and some incredibly ugly fashion – and yet, there was still an optimism, a sense of fun that helped to leaven the misery. I see Queen as part of that, as were bizarre Jell-O recipes that could only have been created by General Foods food scientists who had done too much LSD in the hippie days.

The way I see it, overall things have only gotten worse (I blame Reagan), and yet we don’t have much in the culture these days to cheer us up. (I mean, Lady Gaga is only one woman, right?) We need to take joy where we can find it, whether it be in the Julia Child roses blooming right now in my yard, or in jaunts back to the 1970s when someone thought that combining lime Jell-O, avocado and mayonnaise was a good idea, and Queen recorded the song “Stone Cold Crazy”.

Virgin Recipe: Marzipan

“I know why we should go to D–‘s party,” Bryan announced a few nights ago.

Oh? Why?

“Because you can bring Jell-O.”

And there you have it, a pretty good sketch of our social life.

Actually, it’s not quite true that this is a “virgin” recipe. When I was a slip of a girl back in the wacky 1970s, my Auntie Kathy (all of my aunts were “auntie”, pronounced “AHN-tee”) taught me how to make this. It’s a simple recipe consisting primarily of shredded coconut and ground blanched almonds, bound together with sweetened condensed milk, and flavored with a little almond extract and a three-ounce package of Jell-O.

A very sticky pink pasteAuntie Kathy passed this on to me as a recipe for “strawberries”, and that’s what I made here. You can use other Jell-O flavors to produce marzipan of different colors that can be shaped into different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and I had originally intended to make a few different batches. The idea had a certain appeal, I think, because it reminded me of a bowl of wax fruit that my grandmother had that I used to covet* (yes, I was a weird kid), but once I’d gotten started with the strawberries, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. After the ingredients were combined, I found the resulting paste to be sticky and difficult to work with. As the pink goo accumulated on my hands, the paste would stick to them rather than cohering into balls that could be pinched and poked into strawberry-ish shapes, and I had to stop a couple of times to wash my hands for a fresh start.

According to the book, the recipe should make 36 pieces. Lacking the patience to make more, smaller pieces, I managed to get 29, which I decided was good enough. Anyway, the coconut gave a peculiar-looking hairy texture to the smaller ones – which, as it turned out, the tasters didn’t mind.

Closeup of "strawberry"

Shredded coconut makes this berry look a little hairy

They went into the fridge to chill overnight, and according to the book, they were also supposed to get dry. I was dubious. Auntie Kathy taught me to use a second box of Jell-O to coat the strawberries in the powder. I decided to go with the book to see what happened.** The candies were still a tad sticky by morning, but much better than they’d been the night before. I added the finishing touch, a cluster of “leaves” on the top of each using a store-bought tube of green frosting.*** After another couple of hours in the fridge, the strawberries were packed into a plastic container for transport to D–‘s house in TheMiddleOfNowhere, Massachusetts.

We weren’t really only going to D–‘s in aid of the Project, but I knew that the old science fiction convention crowd could be counted upon for some unfiltered opinions on my dish, provided I could get them to eat it.

There was a good amount of food at the party, and, hermits that we’ve been, I had nearly forgotten that at any party there are always people who will at least try, if not hoover up, practically everything on the table. About two-thirds of my strawberries were consumed. Two of the tasters were children who were strangely unenthusiastic considering that food so sweet and simple-tasting traditionally appeals to kids. Grown-ups’ responses ranged from “I can’t eat that, I’m vegetarian and that has gelatin in it”, to “Fantastic!”, to the comment from D–‘s husband G–, in a small homage to Douglas Adams – “These taste almost, but not entirely, unlike strawberries.”

"Berries" with icing leaves

The finishing touch – green icing from a tube

My bringing what I still think of as “Auntie Kathy”s strawberries” turned out to be a fitting sort of convergence, as the party was imbued with an air of nostalgia. We’ve known D– and some of the other guests for roughly 30 years, and there was talk of old times, and relaying stories to guests who were younger or newer friends. At one point the photo albums came out, and we got to look back in time to our younger, skinnier (and in Bryan’s case, clean-shaven) selves. It seems so long ago that we were that tribe of techno-hippies, all smooth faces and dark hair and tie dye.

Anyway, it turned out that Marzipan wasn’t so bad. Bryan and I finished off the last of the berries this evening while watching This Is the End.

* If I’m being honest here, I have to admit that I still covet that wax fruit. Yes, I turned out to be a weird adult.

** Not so much out of purist impulse as because the price of Jell-O has gone up by 50% in the last five years.

*** It has struck me repeatedly that using so-called convenience foods doesn’t make cooking all that much easier. The frosting-in-a-tube saved me maybe 15 minutes of work, and could not compensate for my lack of mad frosting skillz.

I Heart Jell-O

Been doing some shopping…

packaging of anatomical heart gelatin mold

From Archie McPhee

You Are Welcome Here

Peeps peeping through office window

My first (and possibly last) hack during a brief moment of structural integrity.

For my first Jell-O dish, I decided to do something fun and pretty. Today’s dish is partly inspired by an attempt by a few of us in the Lab to do the old “stapler in Jell-O” prank, which quickly escalated in the planning stages (this is MIT, after all) from a stapler suspended in a simple single-flavor block of Jell-O to a stapler in a rainbow block of Jell-O.

My co-conspirators were a research specialist who had recently finished his master’s thesis with us, and a doctoral student, and as it turned out, these young men had little interest in my fairly extensive experience with Jell-O and my limited experience with hacks. (I once attempted to fill the sidelight window of a co-worker’s office with a rainbow of marshmallow peeps, but I was insufficiently rigorous in my approach. I was not careful enough about measuring the dimensions of the window and of the peeps. Also, I failed to take into account the fact that hundreds of peeps actually weigh something. Rookie mistakes.) The guys quickly lost patience with the Jell-O layering process, and demonstrated that even MIT graduates can fail in spectacular fashion with Jell-O:

Jell-O mess

This is what happens when you get impatient with Jell-O

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do a rainbow jelly the right way, carefully preparing and chilling each layer, and giving it time to set up properly to give it a fair chance of unmolding with integrity. So here was my opportunity. I spent an afternoon and evening watching Harry Potter and making six layers (twelve cups) of Jell-O (strawberry, orange, lemon, lime, berry blue, and grape) for my rainbow. As you can see, it was not terribly successful.

overhead shot of rainbow Jell-O

Maybe this is what Judy Garland was thinking about when she sang “Over the Rainbow”.

rainbow pattern in Jell-O, side view

From the side, the rainbow pattern is visible.

I’m starting to think that this ring mold is a bit of a lose when it comes to layered gelatin. I’ve had this happen to me before with this mold, where the layers slid apart when I unmolded the dish, or some time thereafter. Also, I didn’t happen to have any nonstick cooking spray on hand when I was preparing this last night, and that makes a difference. It sounds gross, but you can’t taste it in the eating, and it’s better than the warm water bath method for loosening the Jell-O, which can leave it kind of melty.

Note that the smaller, solid molds have remained intact. Bryan and I each ate one of those after we took the photos (Bryan exlaiming, “…and the snozzberry layer tastes like snozzberries!”) and as I was spooning up slices, I noticed that they were perfect little rainbows. Visually, it was actually rather delightful to eat. Almost makes up for the cloying aftertaste.

Jell-O on spoon showing rainbow pattern

This is what they used to call a “lovin’ spoonful”.

I served this with whipped cream flavored with Grand Marnier because we don’t have any vanilla extract in the house. Could someone please tell Bryan that vanilla extract is a pantry staple that should be on hand at all times? Thank you.

As I was thinking about this recipe, I was reminded of the “You Are Welcome Here” campaign at MIT that went on for a couple of years. lgbt@mit mailed out some informational material and postcards that we were to consider posting in our workspaces to indicate that we’re welcoming to the LGBT community. To be honest, this made me a little uncomfortable, because there seemed to be an implication that if you failed to post the card in your workspace you might be homophobic. Or, at least, people might think you are. It just felt a bit coercive. Maybe that’s why they stopped doing it. (Or they ran out of funding for the campaign.)

Nevertheless, I felt it would be fitting if I voluntarily, in my own way, did a blog post to confirm that, indeed, all are welcome here, and I’m cool with people letting their freak flags fly. At first I felt a little sorry that the Jell-O mold didn’t come out better, but I think the message here is that everyone is beautiful and tasty, including those of us who can’t or won’t conform to the shape of a mold.

You Are Welcome Here

I’m Baaaaack….

DessertBanquetSo, here I am again, getting ready to embark on another Jell-O journey – or, rather, to continue the one I started five years ago. As I begin this again, it’s strange how much about blogging has changed in that time. For starters, CMSs have become more complex, and getting this thing up and running and working the way I want is trickier than I recall of the first time around. Further, to be a proper blogger now, there has to be more social media tie-in; for instance, among other things, I may have to become a semi-serious user of Twitter.

Luckily, I’m not starting all over with the Jell-O. I will be reposting the original posts that I was able to retrieve via the Wayback Machine. Recipes I’ve already made that turned out to be really nasty will be relegated to Memory Lane, meaning I’ll write about them from my notes and from memory, but I will not be making the recipes again. (Salmon Dill Mousse does not bear repeating, believe me.) The less offensive recipes for which I don’t have posts will be Recipe Reboots. Untried recipes are, of course, Virgin Recipes.

I still have my molds, and knowledge won by hard experience. I know to have a stash of ice in the freezer for quick setting over an ice bath, and to spray molds with nonstick cooking spray to make unmolding easier. I know that sugar-free Jell-O dissolves less easily than the regular kind, and that saving the calories isn’t really worth it.

I have a better idea of my limits. Keeping this up will be hard. Not doing it may be harder.

To set the tone, here’s a video I like I lot. Feel free to Pony if you’ve got the moves…