Okay, I admit it, I have a number of different motives for rebooting my Jell-O blog. (I can hear you all now: “What? You’re not doing this just because you love Jell-O so much? Say it ain’t so!”)
During the time when I wasn’t blogging, I started following blogs about women’s fitness from a feminist angle. I’m actually fairly serious, or at least doggedly determined, about strength training, and it can be a lonely pursuit for anybody (a lot of men as well as women disdain or fear the weight room) and I was looking for a virtual community of strong women who enjoy slinging some iron. I figured that looking for feminist oriented blogs would get me away from the supplement marketing and fitspo and put me in touch with kindred spirits.
Gradually I began to notice that a lot of women have arrived at lifting, and fitness pursuits in general, through battling eating disorders and serious body image issues. The first time I got an inkling of this was in a yoga class in Boston where the instructor mentioned disordered eating and then said something along the lines of “…and we all know what that’s like, don’t we?” And I immediately thought, “Speak for yourself, lady!” I thought this was a peculiarity of that particular yoga studio, until I dove into the blogosphere of women’s fitness. These sites spend a lot of time on food and body issues, with what sounds to me like an underlying assumption that the vast majority of a female audience shares those issues. The thing is, I don’t.
Frankly, it’s starting to make me feel a little weird. I lucked out in the genetic lottery and have always been naturally trim (not slender or willowy or waifish, but trim) so I guess my mother, who was severely lacking in energy and motivation anyway, reckoned she was off the hook for indoctrinating me into the feminine pursuit of keeping slim. Besides, I think my family thought that a brainy and seriously nearsighted girl like me was unlikely to be attractive to boys no matter what, so my looks weren’t important — and then it turned out that contact lenses and college opened whole new vistas for me, boy-wise. As a result, I’ve never been wracked with anxiety about my appearance and have never dieted to lose weight.
(No, says Bryan when I express this idea to him, I just eat what Fitbit tells me to. Not true. I tell Fitbit what I eat; Fitbit only gets to count the calories, which I’m tracking to make sure I eat enough to get stronger.)
This is why I can also do a Jell-O blog, because overall my eating habits are good, and I don’t stress about what I eat. I gather from the blogs I’ve been following that this makes me a bit of a freak. I wish I could share my secret, whatever that is, with other people. There’s so much clickbait diet and fitness advice in the media now that makes staying healthy sound way more complicated than it has to be. Good foods, bad foods, staying hydrated… sitting is as bad for you as smoking… moderate levels of daily activity are good for you… moderate levels of daily activity aren’t enough… Calgon, take me away!
So, if you don’t mind, I think I’m just going to stay over here, making Jell-O.
Originally posted November 22, 2009
One of the things I’m trying to do to make this Project as un-arduous as possible is to make recipes when fresh ingredients are in season. Since this is the beginning of the holiday season, readers should prepare themselves for the onslaught of apples, cranberries, and (ugh) dried fruit.
Contrary to the name of the recipe, this is more like poached apples. The basic idea is to make Jell-O (strawberry in this case), season it with lemon slices and a cinnamon stick, and simmer the apples in it. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Again, I have only myself to blame for any wrong turnings in this endeavor. The main problem stemmed from the kind of apple I used, namely, the ones that happened to be in the refrigerator. The recipe called for six baking apples, and there were six apples in the fridge. Bryan bought them, so I wasn’t sure what kind they were, and I really should have been more careful. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I peeled and cored the apples the slow, laborious way, with a paring knife, I felt myself getting in tune with the mindset of housewives who typically resort to cookbooks like The New Joys of Jell-O. I quickly lost patience with the chore and wished there was an easier way to achieve the same result. Also, coring apples with a paring knife is a pain in the ass. I had set up the rest of the mise en place and left the apples for last. Since I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to prepare them, I didn’t start the Jell-O poaching liquid until I was well into it, but it turned out that I was over-cautious in that regard, and the apples were already starting to turn a little brown by the time I set them into the saucepan with the liquid, where they were to simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, being basted and turned occasionally. The aroma from the apples cooking in the Jell-O was not at all unpleasant, but at the same time it reminded me overwhelmingly of the gift shop section of Cracker Barrel, which was confusing. I have mixed feelings about Cracker Barrel.
Suddenly, sugary bubbles were starting to fizz up from under the saucepan lid – the apples had gotten past the simmer zone, and when I lifted the lid to check them, four of the six apples had cooked down to shapeless mush. I had used the wrong kind of apples. It was pure, undeserved luck that when the simmering was done there were two apples that had retained enough structure to be used in the photograph.
The recipe called for the apples to be chilled until set, about an hour, before serving. They were in the fridge for longer than that, but they hadn’t set, and that was okay. I garnished the two “good” dishes with scoops of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream, and it was actually a toothsome little number. My only real complaint was that the cinnamon flavor wasn’t strong enough. (I think the GF R&D drones must have been pretty timid about seasonings as a rule.) Bryan thought it would have been better with some sort of crumble topping, but allowed that this was one of the more palatable entries so far. It almost didn’t taste like a Jell-O dessert, except for the funky aftertaste. The bright red color was vintage 1970s.
I ran out of breakfast cereal and ended up eating the remaining two dishes of what turned out to be strawberry Jell-O applesauce for breakfast for the next couple of days. Nummy nummy num!
A Fun Link
Online acquaintance M– pointed me in the direction of a blog entry giving directions for making a gruesome meat hand using the hand-shaped mold. It’s so awesomely creepy it almost makes me wish I wasn’t “mostly vegetarian.” Check it out!
As the Byrds sang, to everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn)… and right now it’s Mallomar season. For the uninitiated, the Mallomar is a cookie produced by Nabisco, a soft graham base with a pouf of marshmallow on top that’s coated with a dark chocolate shell. Since its introduction to the market 100 years ago, it has only been available roughly from September through March, ostensibly because the chocolate coating is too delicate to survive distribution during the spring and summer months. The first box of Mallomars was sold in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the Mallomar is still “a New York thing”, with 87% of sales in the New York metro area — which is where Bryan and I first got into Mallomar season. Several years living in Brooklyn will rub off on a person, one way or another.
The Mallomar is part of a 200-year-old cross-cultural trend of chocolate-coated marshmallow treats. There are a number of similar cookies available on U.S. supermarket shelves, such as Pinwheels, and Canadian Whippets. The Moon Pie is a southern cousin, with marshmallow sandwiched between two graham biscuits and enrobed in a chocolate shell, which is not so easy to find north of the Mason-Dixon line outside of Cracker Barrel. Back when Bryan and I were roommates in a shared apartment known among our friends and acquaintances as Fandom House, a northern doppelgänger of the Moon Pie known as the Scooter Pie was a staple in our pantry, but they’re now scarce, though I see you can still get them through the Old-Time Candy web site.
The Mallomar is special, though, because of its limited availability. When it shows up in the supermarket, we’ll have one, or maybe two, boxes of them all season. What we do, like we did last Thursday evening, is just have a little pig-out, the two of us eating a box of them after dinner. (For those of you keeping score, that’s nine cookies apiece, for a grand total of 540 calories for each of us — about the same as a half-pint of ice cream.) Since we only do this once or twice a year, we’re not too fussed about it. Sometimes it’s good to have a treat.
Some people buy Mallomars in bulk while they’re in season and freeze them to enjoy in the spring and summer. Some people just like to eat them frozen. We don’t freeze ours, but I’m trying to settle on a favorite way of eating them. Sometimes I eat them marshmallow-first, biting off the fluffy top and then eating the chocolate-coated graham disk. Sometimes I just like to nibble my way through a cookie, getting marshmallow, graham and chocolate in every bite.
The Mallomar isn’t a food to be eaten mindlessly. You have to be there with it, you think about it, you enjoy it while it lasts.
I had not intended to go as much as a week without a post, but the fall semester just started at MIT, which means work went from zero to sixty in about a half a second, tough to adjust to after a too-short summer.
So, it seemed like a good time to reboot a couple of the simplest recipes from the beginning of the book. The New Joys of Jell-O does have a sort of progressive order to it, with the first chapter (“NIce, Easy Things to Do with Jell-O”) gently leading into Jell-O cookery with your basic fruits suspended in Jell-O and, of course, techniques like Cubed Gelatin. That’s probably why I didn’t make notes of the first dozen or so recipes I did when I first started the Project. I think I had originally set out to do them in the order in which they appear in the book, but changed my mind for reasons already discussed elsewhere in the blog.
After an unseasonably cool August, last week saw the return of summer, so I made Melon Cooler. It doesn’t get much simpler than this. The most difficult part of the recipe was selecting the “citrus-based carbonated beverage”, both because I’m not a big fan of citrus-based carbonated beverages and because it’s not possible to buy a single twelve-ounce can, or even a six-pack of twelve-ounce cans, in the supermarket. We seldom have soda (or “tawnic” in the local vernacular) in the house, so it came as a bit of surprise to me that the cans in six-packs are now small, maybe eight ounces, like the ones they have on airplanes where the flight attendant doles out half the can into a plastic cup for you and you feel ripped off even though you’re not being charged extra for it. Twelve-ounce cans now come only in twelve-packs or cases. The most sensible choice available turned out to be in a display of bottled sodas from Mexico – a Fanta piña.
The most time-consuming part of preparing this recipe was making the melon balls. Before I started this recipe, we didn’t actually have a melon baller, and it turned out to be a little tricky to find one. My theory is that melon balls have fallen out of fashion because, okay, it’s time-consuming to make them, but it’s also a really inefficient use of a melon. In fact, the recipe calls for the melon to be diced, but I thought melon balls would look more interesting in a Jell-O mold – and I was right. The odd pieces of melon that didn’t get balled were chopped up and I had honeydew bits for a breakfast for a couple of days, so all’s well that ends well.
Melon Cooler did turn out to be a nice thing to eat on a hot summer evening. The honeydew helped to tone down the heavy sweetness of the orange Jell-O, making the dessert surprisingly refreshing. Unfortunately, the Fanta piña, tasty enough by itself, didn’t really hold its own in the Jell-O, leading Bryan to ask what was the point of it. I have no idea. However, we did at least eat all of it.
Today’s Jell-O was even easier, Quick Fruit Dessert. I made a batch of Jell-O (mango flavored) to which I added a ten-ounce package of frozen fruit (store-brand organic raspberries). The recipe called for this to be served soft-set after chilling for an hour or so (hence “quick”) but I wanted more Jell-O mold practice, so it set up for several hours to be served as dessert after dinner. It was still quick, and I think we actually liked it. The berries definitely dominated. The mango flavor was noticeable, but subtle, and the whole was tart and refreshing.
Sometimes it’s nice to have something quick and simple. Simplicity is seriously underrated these days. A dessert doesn’t have to be complicated and elaborately plated to be satisfying. Likewise, simple things done well can improve our quality of life considerably. It’s worth a few bucks to Jenna Marbles (warning – lots of f-bombs are dropped, but she means well):
Originally posted December 2009
Somewhere along the way, I hit upon the idea of creating Jell-O “meals” as a way of killing at least two birds with one stone – hence, the Jell-O brunch. I have no way of determining the exact date when this was originally posted, but judging by the sad-looking tinsel garlands framing Freak Mountain’s kitchen windows, I probably did this between Christmas and New Year’s. That week always feels like a bit of a let-down to me, so in a sad way this Jell-O brunch was perfect.
Salmon Dill Mousse
For a certain type of person, the film reference here is obvious – Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. For the non-nerds out there, Meaning of Life comprises a string of sketches that address chronologically the various stages of human life, from birth to the afterlife. In one of the sketches about death, the Grim Reaper turns up at a dinner party at the country cottage of an upper middle class couple. The hosts and dinner guests slowly catch on to the fact that the Grim Reaper isn’t a simple local farmer but rather Death Himself, and everyone at the table is dead. When asked how they could all have died at the same time, the Reaper points out the salmon mousse as the fatal dish. “Golly, you didn’t use canned salmon, did you?” the host snaps at his wife. “I’m most dreadfully sorry!” she replies, clearly mortified.
So I was off to an inauspicious start, because I also used canned salmon, thinking it would be less trouble than, say, poaching fresh salmon. I may have been wrong there. Who knew canned salmon would have so many bones in it, so many tiny but potentially hazardous bones? I had to pick them out by hand, which took a long time and was a major pain in the ass and left me already disposed to disliking Salmon Dill Mousse.
Because of the angst involved in preparing the salmon, it’s easy to forget that there are other ingredients, but Salmon Dill Mousse also includes lemon juice, sour cream, mayonnaise, minced onion, dill weed, and lemon Jell-O, which seems to be the go-to on-the-shelf Jell-O flavor to substitute for (no longer made by General Foods) savory gelatin. I made no notes about combining the other ingredients with the salmon, but the recipe indicates that the salmon is combined with the non-Jell-O ingredients, and the resulting salmon salad (which probably wasn’t so bad at that point) was blended into a double batch of thickened lemon Jell-O and chilled in a loaf pan. I noted afterwards that “this had better at least be palatable, because there’s a lot of it”.
My noted response upon tasting Salmon Dill Mousse was “ew”. It had an exceedingly unpleasant mouthfeel, and as is usually the case with these savory Jell-O recipes, it was too sweet. On the other hand, Bryan ate a whole slice. He wanted to give it two “nasties”, but I wanted to give it four, so we compromised and gave it three. I wished I’d added more lemon juice… onion… dill… something to cover the Jell-O flavor. Of course, in hindsight I know that nothing would have helped.
I made an impulsive decision to start believing in God just so that I could curse him for afflicting me with Salmon Dill Mousse, but later thought better of it.
Crown Jewel Cake
Mercifully, Crown Jewel Cake was fun to make, as are many of the recipes that are more involved. The “jewels” are batches of Cubed Gelatin in orange, cherry and lime flavors. The base of the “cake” is a lemon Jell-O bavarian made with Dream Whip.
Photos of this one are featured both on the back cover and in a two-page spread in the middle of the book (which I’ve echoed in the Project’s social media profiles) and it’s easy to see why – Crown Jewel Cake is a great example of Jell-O’s visual appeal. Those bright primary colors are reminiscent of sunny days and childhood, and Jell-O desserts often look fun, as shown in this television ad from 1980:
The end result was not so satisfying. The bavarian part lacked structural integrity, as you can see in my photo. I find myself hoping that this was a mistake on my part, because this recipe looks so neat that I want it to work. Flavor-wise, it wasn’t bad. Bryan disliked it less than the Cool Whip bavarians. (Still a puzzle to me, he seems to prefer Dream Whip.) Once again, I was reminded of my grandmother’s ambrosia salad. The main problem with the eating of this was that, with the bavarian part so soft, and the Jell-O “jewels” quite firm, the overall texture was kind of weird.
Maybe some time I’ll try to “reboot” this one. The Salmon Dill Mousse, however, shall never again make an appearance at Freak Mountain.