Monthly Archives: October, 2014

Halloween Jell-O and Serendipity

Okay, first of all, in case anyone was worried, I have not fallen down a deep well or been kidnapped by aliens or contracted ebola (although hearing all the hoopla about ebola is making me wish I would fall down a deep well or be kidnapped by aliens). I am simply being old Slacky McSlacker, your friend with such a huge perfectionist streak that she can’t get anything done.

I know that I need to do another “scary” Jell-O recipe, and October would have been a perfect time to do it. So, oh damn. But no joke, it’s not easy to get psyched to do them. Consider this: anchovies in Jell-O. I’m not making that up.

But I am still here, still with Jell-O on the brain, and, in fact, in the midst of another “off-script” Jell-O project for Halloween, which will be unveiled at the party tonight and posted this weekend. I’m also the proud owner of a new camcorder, and I’m hoping to enhance NNoJP with more moving pictures in the future so that you can not only read about my projects but also watch them wiggle and see them jiggle.

Regarding serendipity: As perfectionists are wont to do, rather than writing I’ve been mentally beating up on myself for not writing. Then a little while ago I ran across this post over at Cranky Fitness. (Crabby is an excellent lady and I really should spend more time at her blog.) We writers are all experts at procrastination, and boy, do we hate ourselves for it.

Anyway, happy Halloween, bugbears and ghouls! (Did I really say that? Why yes, yes I did. Must stop eating candy….)

Memory Lane: Fromage de Tête (Creamy Blue Cheese Salad)

Originally posted late February/early March 2010

Cheese Jell-O molded in the shape of a brain

The cheesy color shows off the brain details quite nicely.

To be honest, when I was plotting the reboot of my Jell-O blog, I decided to do the Memory Lane thing as a way to save myself some work. It’s actually turning out to be more difficult than I was expecting. In some ways, cooking and then writing shortly afterwards is much easier. The details are fresher, and there aren’t value judgements to be made about whether to embellish when recollection comes up short. Mulling can take at least as much time as whipping up a Jell-O recipe, and I tend to be honest to a fault, which may be why I’ve not been particularly successful in the fiction writing department.

Then there’s the way that my memories have of not quite matching up to my notes. I was surprised to see that I’d given Creamy Blue Cheese Salad three nasties, because I could have sworn I gave it more. Creamy Blue Cheese Salad should be one of the less appetizing Jell-O recipes in the book, containing as it does softened cream cheese, Dream Whip, and bleu cheese (Maytag bleu from Wisconsin, which sounded like it would be suitable for Jell-O) in the usual lemon Jell-O base — not to mention the cayenne pepper seasoning.

And yet…

My notes indicate that Bryan ate three pieces, and I dubbed it “not blatantly offensive” (the cayenne being barely detectable), adding that it would be better with unsweetened whipped cream in place of the Dream Whip. Apparently, the three-stage flavor (lemon, Dream Whip, bleu cheese) was not as bad as I thought it would be.


My recollection of Creamy Blue Cheese Salad is that the best part was the way it worked with my brain mold, which led me to dub this recipe Fromage de Tête. It was the perfect amount of Jell-O for the mold, plus it was roughly brain-colored. I did a short video, because it was impossible to fully appreciate this dish with just a still photograph.

(If you just watched the video, I can confirm that, yes, Bryan and I are easily amused.)

Of course, the final arbiter of Fromage de Tête was our late, great cat Mr. Fuzzybutt, who was a consumate mooch and cheese lover. He ate a bit of it, but was clearly bothered by the aftertaste.

very handsome Maine coon cat

Our Mr. Fuzzybutt, not a fan of the Creamy Blue Cheese Salad.


In keeping with my October scary food theme, here’s what Bryan had for dinner on Friday (at Commonwealth restaurant in Cambridge). When he ordered this and the waitress warned him that it was whole and unboned, I made sure to ask her to have the chef remove the head from my trout. Which I think was probably the more delicious for the fact that it wasn’t staring up at me while I ate it.

whole fish, fried and looking grim

So glad no one ordered the duck. Who wants their dinner to be smiling at them?

Memory Lane: Hand of Glory

Originally posted November 1, 2009

The Hand of Glory is the dried and pickled hand of a man who has been hanged, often specified as being the left (Latin: sinister) hand, or, if the man were hanged for murder, the hand that “did the deed.”

According to old European beliefs, a candle made of the fat from a malefactor who died on the gallows, lighted, and placed (as if in a candlestick) in the Hand of Glory, which comes from the same man as the fat in the candle; this would have rendered motionless all persons to whom it was presented.

from the Wikipedia entry for Hand of Glory

Ah, October, probably my favorite month of the year. The foliage is colorful, the days are getting shorter but are not yet too short, the air is becoming crisp enough that I can start pulling out all the sweaters I’m finally starting to miss after schvitzing  all summer, and it’s capped off by a great holiday, Halloween. I love Halloween because it’s all about confronting our fears (of death, primarily) by making fun of them. There are no heavy religious overtones to the holiday, relatively little family pressure, and no gift-giving obligations. It’s a chance to indulge the inner drama geek I barely realized I had until a few years ago, the one time of year when I can justify spending more than a utilitarian amount of time on hair, makeup and clothes.

Also, candy.

hand-shaped mold and boxes of Jell-O

Hand of Glory – the essentials

Hand of Glory is not in The New Joys of Jell-O, but it’s the coolest thing I’ve done with Jell-O to date. During the original Project, my friend K–* loaned me her hand-shaped gelatin mold and asked me to use it to make a Jell-O for the Halloween party that she and her husband F– (a researcher at the Lab) were giving, as they do every year, for Lab folk and other friends. At that point, I had already done enough fruit-suspended-in-Jell-O that I was grateful for the opportunity to get a little creative with it.

lime Jell-O marshmallow brain surprise

Lime Jell-O marshmallow pineapple surprise doesn’t show off the brain-y details very well

There are a few different body-part molds out there — the hand, the heart, and the ever-popular brain mold. A pretty common way to use them is to combine Jell-O with a creamy substance to create a flesh-like or just plain creepy color. For instance, I’ve been advised that combining red Jell-O and Cool Whip gives a reasonably authentic internal-organ appearance to a heart mold.

I wanted to take it further than that.

I wanted to make a corpse hand, and I wanted it to have some detail, so first I needed to make some dark blue veins. I started with half of a packet of berry blue Jell-O dissolved in a half cup of boiling water, to which I added four drops of blue food coloring, one drop of red, and one drop of green, and then a little ice to cool/thicken it. My notes indicate that I didn’t think the color was dark enough, nor the gelatin thick enough, but piping this into the bottom of the lubed hand mold, following the veins on the back of my own left hand as a pattern, actually worked out pretty well. For good measure, I also added dark-blue fingernails**.

Jell-O veins in the bottom of the mold

The veins were drawn in with thickened gelatin in a squeeze bottle.

Next was the flesh of the hand. I didn’t mean for this to look like the hand of a fresh corpse, so pink was right out. I added the other half of the packet of berry blue to a three-ounce package of peach Jell-O, using the usual amount of water. I cooled this until it was thickened enough to mix in six or seven ounces of Cool Whip that I’d flavored with a little almond extract, and added a drop of green food coloring. This pleased me greatly.

Hand mold with "decaying flesh" ready to be refrigerated

I had to prop up one side of the mold with a dish towel to keep the blue-green “flesh” inside the hand part of the mold.

I thought that the “mitt” part on which the hand sits should suggest congealed blood, so I did up a batch of raspberry Jell-O with frozen berries. I can’t remember whether it was just raspberries or a mix of raspberries and strawberries (kind of looks like a mix to me), but either way it looked awesome and just filled the mold.

berry-filled gelatin tops off the mold

Mmmmm, concealed blood…

Having learned from my mistakes on Ginger Peach Dessert, I took more care this time and my Hand of Glory came out of the mold as well as I could have hoped.

Hand of Glory in aluminum baking pan

The Hand of Glory is looking good after unmolding – no melty spoodge!

It looked a little plain in that baking pan, though. As they say, the Devil is in the details, and this being Halloween, more details were definitely called for. I added the dirt of the grave (Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, ground up in the food processor with a little melted butter, aka crumb crust) and some gummy worms to complete my little culinary tableau. As I said, the coolest thing to date.

Hand of Glory on a bed of chocolate crumb dirt being crawled over by gummy worms

The Hand of Glory in all its gory glory

The Jell-O Hand of Glory was a hit at the Halloween party, mainly as a table decoration, although people ate the gummy worms and the crumb crust “dirt”. Of course, Bryan and I sampled the Hand part, and actually it was pretty good. The flavors blended together well, and I thought it was fun to eat, though clearly I am less squeamish than a lot of people.

Me in 1950s housewife getup

The dress is vintage and fits like it was made for me. Scary….

I should mention, too, that my costume turned out surpassingly well. I dressed as a 1950s housewife, and I got a lot of double-takes because people genuinely didn’t recognize me at first. (The blonde wig was a particularly good disguise back when I was 100% brunette.) Several people asked if I was supposed to be Betty from “Mad Men”, but I hadn’t started watching the show then. I just loved the idea of turning up as June Cleaver with a corpse  hand in a baking pan. That’s how I roll.

* K– isn’t a huge Jell-O aficianado, but she is from Minneapolis. ‘Nuff said.

** Legend has it that fingernails continue to grow after you die. Not true. It’s the skin receding that gives the illusion of fingernails growing on a corpse. I just thought you’d like to know that.

Recipe Repost: Ginger Peach Dessert

Originally posted October 29, 2009

Ginger Peach Dessert sounds a little fancy, but it’s really just your basic fruited Jell-O. The base is orange, and the cold liquid is ginger ale. At least, that’s what the recipe calls for, but after my disappointment with the Jellied Ginger Upper, I wanted to go for a stronger ginger flavor, so I used Reed’s Jamaican ginger beer instead. The fruit is, alas, canned peaches.

This sounded like a recipe that would lend itself to being molded, so I decided to use it as a practice run with the hand-shaped mold that was loaned to me for my Halloween party commission work. It struck me that this might be a tricky mold to use, for a number of reasons, the primary one being the extremely irregular shape of the mold. I knew there was no way I could fumble my way out of this one with a knife. Also, the mold is made of plastic, and I hadn’t worked with plastic molds yet, so I didn’t have a feel for how this would work.

The recipe didn’t make quite enough to fill the mold, but it was full enough. The way this mold is formed, the hand sits atop a mitten-shaped platform of Jell-O, and luckily there was at least enough to fill the mold above the outline of the hand where the platform started. I’ve been told that it’s extremely difficult to unmold from this if all you do is fill the hand, and I believe it.

melty gelatin mold in the shape of a hand

Ginger Peach WHAAAA……?

As it turned out, it was difficult to unmold anyway. I blame myself. I forgot to coat the mold with nonstick cooking spray. I filled a baking pan as full as I dared with hot water from the tap, but it wasn’t deep enough to immerse the underside of the mold, and this problem was exacerbated by the irregular shape of the thing. The wrist section is much deeper than the fingers. After what seemed like far too long in the water, I tried turning it out onto the platter. Nothing. So I got out the hairdryer and felt silly blow-drying my mold for a few minutes, with no visible effects. I went back to immersing, then back to the hair dryer, then immersing again, until finally the thing plopped out onto the platter. As you can see in the photo, the unmolding required far too much melting of the Jell-O, so what I ended up with was a diseased looking hand sitting in a pool of orange spooge.

This was not a big hit with the Peanut Gallery. I’m now thinking that this may not have been a good recipe to mold after all, because the Jell-o was closer to “soft set” than it was to “nice and firm.” Bryan didn’t like the texture, and he had to ask me what flavor the Jell-O was. The latter complaint may have had to do with the ginger beer. Reed’s is one of the better ones around, but it’s very sweet and the ginger flavor lacks sharpness. (We used to love another ginger beer, Old Tyme, which was so spicy it made me sneeze, but that appears to have vanished from the marketplace.) I don’t think it worked so well in this recipe because, as is often the case, it just didn’t blend well with the flavor of the Jell-O. I’m not fond of artificial orange flavor, so I didn’t mind it so much, though. The canned peaches were, as usual, a disappointment.

The real bummer here, of course, is that I have not allayed my fear of disappointing our hosts at the Halloween party…

Virgin Recipe: Fruit Flavor Marshmallows (Another Marshmallow Test)

Author’s Note: Woo! So my trainer bailed on me at the last possible moment – after I’d taken a double dose of C4 preworkout. Looks like I’m finishing this post á la Jack Kerouac, on speed and listening to jazz…

“Every eighteen months the storage capacity of a marshmallow doubles. I believe that’s called S’More’s Law.” — Stephen Colbert

Your Humble Narrator tumping spatulasful of marshmallow in a pan

The marshmallow creme was quite stiff when I put it in the pan. Also, check out my sinewy forearm – all that gym time is TOTALLY worth it.

I was inspired to tackle this one when I saw Stephen Colbert interview Walter Mischel about his book, The Marshmallow Test, which describes a test devised in the 1960s to measure children’s self-control and ability to delay gratification. Given that I grew up in a large family in which resources were stretched thin, “delayed” is the only kind of gratification I know (I haven’t even ordered a new iPhone yet), but what really caught my attention were the marshmallows that Professor Mischel brought on the show to test Colbert’s self-control. He said they were from Paris, and they were pink and cube-shaped and probably made in a kitchen by a confiseur, not extruded in a factory like the bowl of Jet-Puffed that Colbert had handy. I thought that was a lovely and classy gesture on Mischel’s part, and it just seemed like the Universe was telling me to make Fruit Flavor Marshmallows.

Jumping ahead a bit, I was so pleased with how this worked out that I’m not going to describe at length the process of making them; I’m just going to post the recipe and recommend that you go for it:

  • 1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O Gelatin, any flavor
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • Confectioner’s sugar

Dissolve gelatin in boiling water in a saucepan over very low heat. Add sugar, cook and stir just until sugar is dissolved. (Do not boil.) Blend in corn syrup. Chill until slightly thickened. Beat at highest speed of electric mixer until mixture is thickened and will stand in soft peaks — about 8 to 10 minutes. Pour into  an 8-inch square pan which has been lined on sides and bottom with waxed paper and the paper greased with butter or margarine. Chill overnight.

Turn mixture out onto a board heavily dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Carefully peel off waxed paper and dust surfaces heavily with sugar. Cut into 1-inch squares or into shapes, using small cookie cutters dipped in sugar. Roll cut edges in sugar. Store tightly covered. Makes about 5 dozen confections.

I have just a few tips to add to this. By “electric mixer” they mean a stand mixer; it really does take a while to beat this into the right consistency, and you don’t want to be standing over this for ten minutes holding up your Mixmaster Junior. At least, I don’t. For beating, use the whisk attachment on your mixer. It will be less messy at the outset and get you the desired results. Five dozen seems optimistic, unless you cut them very small, but that’s not a terrible idea. These are tasty, but very sweet.

I had never had non-store-bought marshmallows before, and it was interesting to find that these were much softer in consistency, so soft that it’s a little surprising I was able to cut them easily, and they’ve held their rough cube shapes. I used raspberry-flavored Jell-O, so my marshmallows were pink like Professor Mischel’s, albeit stickier.

Lab thermometer doesn't look like it belongs in a kitchen

Don’t have a candy thermometer? Just use your handy ThermoWorks Therma K lab thermometer.

Since I had nothing in my memory to which to compare them, I decided that I would also try to make “real” marshmallows from scratch out of a regular recipe book. At Bryan’s suggestion, I used the recipe from Who Wants Candy? by Jane Sharrock. Fundamentally it was quite similar to the Jell-O version, but this was proper candy-making, the dangerous kind. It involved dissolving two cups of sugar and three quarters of a cup of corn syrup in a half-cup of boiling water (it really is astonishing how much sugar you can dissolve in water if it’s hot enough) and then cooking the molten sweetness to a temperature of (as the recipe instructed) 236°F. I haven’t done much candy-making, but I knew that this sort of hot molten sugar is commonly known in chef circles as “napalm” and must be handled carefully, so I was walking a fine line between confidence and caution. We didn’t have a candy thermometer when I made this, so I used a lab thermometer that Bryan had bought thinking it would be useful for general cooking purposes. I don’t recommend it for this purpose, however. I poked the probe into the sugar syrup occasionally, but as the temperature got into the high two-twenties, I decided that I should keep the probe in there and stand over it as the temperature went up the last few degrees. That was stupid. Get a damn candy thermometer, people! (That’s what we did! Can’t wait to try it!)

Once the syrup was cooked to the “soft ball stage”, I took it off the heat and added water-soaked unflavored gelatin to it. Then it was back to the mixer.

A couple of things about the mixer, which is a Kitchen-Aid we got as a gift from friends the first time we got married almost twenty-two years ago. One, it’s a smaller model and, unbeknownst to me, it had been taking a beating since Bryan started on a bread-making kick a few years ago, so the bowls weren’t screwing onto the base securely anymore, and the motor housing seemed to be slowly coming unseated and juddered in a worrying way as I set the speed higher*. Two, after the Jell-O marshmallows I was unsure that using the whisk attachment was the correct way to go, as both recipes just said to “beat” the molten sugar/gelatin mixture, so I decided to use the regular mixing attachment for the plain marshmallows. That was a mistake. Once I got the speed up past medium, the mixer started flinging drops of napalm around that end of the kitchen counter, and we had to approach it carefully, shut it off, and switch attachments. It went much more smoothly with the whisk.

The mixture was supposed to get fluffy and “hold its shape”. It did increase in volume quite a bit, until it looked and tasted like a slightly thinner version of Marshmallow Fluff, but it didn’t seem to want to get stiffer than that. At that point, I decided all I could do was pour it in the pan and hope for the best.

Rather than buttered wax paper, the recipe said to line a 13″ x 9″ pan with confectioner’s sugar, fully covering the bottom of the pan and running powdered sugar up the sides as far as possible with the back of a spoon. It sort of worked, a bit like when you line a springform pan with a crumb crust for cheesecake, but I was dubious. The powdered sugar stayed put while I added the marshmallow creme, and that made me feel a little better. The recipe said it just needed to sit for twenty minutes or so before cutting. Again, I was dubious, so I popped it into the fridge for luck and set about washing the dishes. Then I gave it several more minutes.

At first, trying to cut it made no sense. Per the recipe, I tried doing it with a knife dipped in hot water, but it seemed like the marshmallow “healed” as soon as I was done cutting. It felt stiffer to the touch, though, so I shifted technique a little, and started dipping the knife in powdered sugar rather than hot water. That worked better. I had to use a cookie spatula to lift the marshmallows out of the pan because they stuck to the pan and I couldn’t turn them out. They were very soft, but seemed to be holding their shape even as I rolled them in powdered sugar. I put them in a plastic container, not touching, and each layer separated by wax paper just in case.

vanilla and raspberry marshmallows

Fresh marshmallows look pretty good…

I will say that they tasted good, with more of a real vanilla flavor than you get in your Jet-Puffed or Sta-Puft or whatever your favorite supermarket brand is. I could totally see the appeal of making these in different, non-Jell-O flavors. The only thing is, they never really stiffened up. In fact, there was still so much moisture in them that they absorbed most of the powdered sugar coating overnight and were sticky when I brought them out in the Lab after lunch. I had brought both sets of marshmallows into the Lab to see if I could get some fresh palates to sample them, but I had very few takers, and they seemed more impressed with the idea of homemade marshmallows than with the actual product.

I have a couple of ideas for what didn’t quite work with the vanilla marshmallows. One is that there might not have been quite enough unflavored gelatin. The recipe called for two tablespoons of gelatin, but a packet of Knox gelatin, which is what I had on hand, is a little less than one tablespoon, so two packets comes up a few milligrams short. Still, the Knox site says to consider a packet to be a tablespoon, so maybe that wasn’t the issue. The more likely culprit is the recipe’s instruction to cook the sugar to the soft ball stage. Our new candy thermometer, and at least one other marshmallow recipe, say to cook the sugar to the hard ball stage, 260°F. I’ll have to try that next time.

So now we have a lot of marshmallows on hand. The raspberry ones are really good in hot cocoa, and I expect at least some of Jell-O’s other fruit flavors would as well. As for the plain marshmallows, Bryan discovered that they’re good for making “fluffernutters”. No waste this time. I have to say that while there is a good chance I’ll try making marshmallows from scratch again, the Jell-O version is a good, less complicated alternative. Finally!

* Bryan has ordered us a new mixer, a heavier-duty Kenwood that has fancy attachments and possibly comes with a splash guard, which will make me feel better about future candy-making endeavors. We’re very grateful to the friends who gave us that old Kitchen-Aid that gave us over two decades of faithful service.