Monthly Archives: June, 2016

The Good Old Days… and Cupcakes

We are living in interesting times. When I woke up on Friday morning, I really didn’t expect to flip on Morning Edition and hear that the Leave side had won the Brexit referendum. (Apparently, a lot of people who voted on the Leave side didn’t expect it, either.) I confess I was never totally clear on what that was all about. Politics generally leaves me feeling a bit stupid, and as an American I can’t pretend to fully understand the British mindset, but the assassination of MP Jo Cox by a Leave supporter made it clear even to us ignorant non-Brits that the whole thing was a mess of huge proportions. Maybe that’s why I expected that Remain would win, and things would go back to normal, or normal-ish.

Come on, UK – aren’t we Yanks creating enough turmoil in the world right now?

Just kidding – I have enormous sympathy for the folks in the UK as they go through this upheaval. At the same time, I can’t help but think of it from my U.S. perspective. To me, as a member of the liberal elite (ha ha), the parallels between the Leave campaign there and the Trump campaign here are eerie. On both sides of the pond, it partly seems to boil down to a longing for “the good old days”, though what exactly that means is never spelled out. There are theories, not very nice ones.

As the writer of a blog that deals, at least in part, in nostalgia, I have to say that the past is at best a mixed bag. It’s only human to have a selective memory, keeping what pleases us and tossing the things we’d rather forget. That’s sort of what nostalgia is. The thing is, even if time travel were possible, we couldn’t go back to a time where the things we remember fondly are there, but the not-so-good things are absent, because that time does not exist. (I’m assuming here that we’re moving back and forth through time in the same quantum universe. If we can move between alternate universes as well, then all bets are off, of course.) Back in “the good old days” people took the bad with the good, just as they do now.

Anyway, since we haven’t figured out how to manage time travel (hell, we haven’t even sorted out the pesky paradoxes), we can only move forward in time and try for the best results from what’s happening now.

Which is not to say we can’t enjoy a little nostalgia from time to time. Or nostalgia and cupcakes. I’ve been thinking of trying to make poke cake for a while, and since this week on the editorial calendar is a “free week”, it seemed like a good time to do something fun. If cupcakes aren’t fun, I don’t know what is.

decorated cupcakes on a Fiestaware plate

Glam Cupcakes á la Freak Mountain

I started out with a box of white cake mix – probably the first time in decades that I’ve used a boxed mix, but I’m not sure what a white cake is, really. I have to admit I was seduced by the dead easiness of whipping up the batter. Even better was using an ice cream scoop to dole out the batter like they do on Cupcake Wars, which is genius, and I wish I’d known to do that as a kid when I was making cupcakes more regularly.

cupcake cut in half to show streaks of Jell-O

Poke cupcake, dissected

When the cupcakes were cooled, I “poked” them with fruit punch flavored Jell-O. For frosting, I didn’t want to use Cool Whip because I wasn’t sure how well it would keep (or travel, depending on what we decided to do with the cupcakes). Instead, I went with the White Mountain Frosting recipe from my trusty Betty Crocker cookbook. It’s boiled-sugar-and-egg-white based, essentially a marshmallow icing, but fluffy and not too perishable. White Mountain Frosting was a reprise of the “napalm” experience of Fruit Flavor Marshmallows, except that this time I was working with a mixer with a spatter guard, so the hazard was greatly reduced.

The glam theme was inspired by the foil cupcake cups, and by Vince Noir’s glam ski suit in the “Tundra” episode of The Mighty Boosh, which we’ve been re-watching in the summer TV lull. Those silver dragées are getting s little hard to find, but luckily they’re available at a local spice shop.

So finally I was pleased with the look, but as far as eating them? Man, these cupcakes are sweet. But we can’t stop eating them – just like in the good old days…

Recipe Reboot: Gelatin and Fruit

Alternately layer prepared Jell-O Gelatin, any flavor, with fresh fruit in individual dishes.

Yes, this recipe appears on page 12…

Gelatin and Fruit is barely a recipe. I wonder if I was setting myself up for a bit of unnecessary angst by treating it as a separate thing. It’s perhaps the second simplest recipe in the book, with Cubed Gelatin in first place, and yet it’s the sixth item to appear. I ask you.

Still, this is helpful in the effort to pace myself, especially since there’s another nasty one coming up. For the Jell-O, I chose peach because I have a lot of it for some reason, and because I like the color. For fruit, I chose blueberries and banana, mainly on impulse. Going to the supermarket at this time of year is a little frustrating, because things are starting to come into season locally, and yet supermarkets are still selling produce from California and Florida. Bananas, I reasoned, are never in season in New England, so I couldn’t feel too bad about buying them. The blueberries were from Washington state, and, I don’t know, that seemed legit enough. Also, I thought Jell-O and banana alone would seem bland.

Tall glass containing alternating layers of peach Jell-O, sliced banana, and blueberries, with whipped cream on top

The colors are uncannily old-fashions

I’m pretty pleased with the result, appearance-wise. It turned out to be a sort of retro color scheme, a bit reminiscent of a 1960s dream kitchen. It was easy enough to eat, though Bryan grumbled about it being served in a tall glass. He’s peeved because he made a batch of chocolate-mint-chip ice cream, and thanks to the Project that’s been relegated to Second Dessert tonight.

To be honest, a low-stress Jell-O was just the thing this weekend (so props to me for planning so well!) I spent an inordinate amount of time working on the Juggling for Office Drones video, by turns moderately pleased and dismally disappointed with it. I know that my videos are like the macaroni-art-on-the-refrigerator of YouTube, and I accept that I would have to spend a lot more time and money on them (time and money that I don’t really have) to make them a lot better, but I feel like they should be a bit better for the effort I’m putting in.

Of course, the work is interesting, and it keeps me busy and thinking about things other than current events. This week has been particularly heavy, what with the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, the assassination of British MP Jo Cox, and the never-ending U.S. presidential campaign, on top of the usual lower-level stresses.

So, I’m finding myself having to make a more conscious effort to keep my head above water. Along with looking at vintage recipes on social media, I’m spending more time listening to my “Galaxy News Radio” station on Pandora, which (when it’s not taking weird detours into Wendy Carlos territory) plays big bands and singing groups from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I’ve liked jazz for a long time, but I’m finding this music particularly soothing these days. Some might say that this is because the early-mid twentieth century was “a simpler time”. Sure it was. It was a time when men were men (who only liked women), women were women (who only liked men), and minorities had their own drinking fountains and lunch counters. It was a time when the world was at war, or between wars. That’s probably why the music from that era is so soothing.

dish of cubed lime Jell-O with chunks of pineapple; tall glass of strawberry Jell-O layered with (one assumes) strawberries

Gelatin and Fruit (right), circa 1974

Contrary to my rather snarky remark at the end of Orange Parfait, the 1970s weren’t a simpler time either. There was Watergate, the aftermath of the Viet Nam war (which I got to experience fairly closely because most of my uncles were in the service, and some went to Viet Nam), and the movement of “drug culture” toward the mainstream. The Cold War was still going on; duck-and-cover had gone out of civil defense style, but our town still tested the air raid sirens every Friday at noon. There were the gas crises, the post-Nixon political mess, and, at the end of the decade, the Iranian hostage crisis.

Well, the people of mid-century America had their comforts, and we had things (music, comedy, junk food) to mitigate the stresses of the 1970s, and I’m finding things in the here-and-now to enjoy. In particular, I’ve been hooked on a new album, Monolith of Phobos by the Claypool Lennon Delerium. I have a mad musical crush on Les Claypool’s bass, which he’s taken out of the rhythm section and placed squarely front and center. It’s so exhilarating to find a great new album; it feels like being a kid and having a long, hot summer of freedom ahead of you….

Juggling for Office Drones

Only one day late for World Juggling Day, the New Joy of Jell-O Project presents – Juggling for Office Drones!

This is my foray into instructional video. I’m not entirely confident that anyone will find it helpful, but it’s been interesting to do a longer and more involved video project….

Virgin Recipe: Orange Parfait

Note: I woke up this morning to the news about the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Like so many others, I’m shocked and saddened, and feeling pessimistic about my country when it seems like there will never be a number of deaths high enough to get us to finally declare “enough is enough”. If this has cast a pall over Orange Parfait, I apologize. The show must go on…


The family that enjoys Jell-O together…. what was I saying about Stockholm syndrome?

If I may, I’d like to start with this photo from the book. There are so many things wrong with it. The ugly two-page spread is the least of it. (And how sad is it that even with a book like this I can’t bring myself to break the binding?) The cheerful demeanor of the family seems all out of proportion. Dad needs a haircut. The Orange Parfait that they’re pretending to enjoy so much bears little resemblance to mine, and I think Mom must have doubled or tripled the recipe to get that much Jell-O in five tall parfait glasses. But the thing that chiefly strikes me is the fact that the three kids are half-finished with their dessert while Mom and Dad haven’t had a chance to dig in their spoons yet. In my family, that would have been considered rude; Dad would be yelling, red-faced with a vein throbbing visibly in his temple, and at least one of those children would be crying.

But enough nostalgia. Outside of my imagined family scene. Orange Parfait is actually okay, easy to make and easy to eat, though I must admit that I did not entirely trust the recipe, and made a few modifications. The key ingredients are orange Jell-O, “orange sections”, chopped apple, and Dream Whip. The recipe calls for a half cup of each of the fruits, which doesn’t sound like enough, and a half-cup of orange sections sounds peculiar, so I cut the orange sections into chunks. Orange Parfait á la Freak Mountain therefore includes one navel orange, sectioned and cut into chunks, and one half of a large apple (Honeycrisp), chopped.

The Dream Whip was another minor challenge. The recipe calls for a half-cup, but a packet of Dream Whip yields two cups of whipped topping according to the directions on the box. I am dubious about that claim, but it’s definitely more than a half cup. So let’s say the quantity of Dream Whip is one envelope prepared per directions. After all, there’s no such thing as too much whipped topping.

Then there was the Jell-O. Oh, General Foods, you sneaky Petes… They tried to fool me into thickening it by adding ice instead of cold water. I don’t know, some people like that technique, but for me that trick never works. I dumped a two-cup measuring cup full of ice into the hot Jell-O, and it immediately started melting at an alarming rate. I pulled out what little unmelted ice there was left after a scant minute, and the Jell-O was still quite liquid, so I ended up thickening it over an ice-water bath anyway.


Orange Parfait á la Freak Mountain

While I was making this, I kept thinking about more delectable parfaits, trifles, tiramisu…. Of course, the beauty of a simple parfait dessert like this is that it’s highly adaptable, and you can just layer your favorite ingredients in a glass and really enjoy your dessert. This dessert as given in The New Joys of Jell-O isn’t at all bad, though. As you can see from the photo, it looks quite nice. I did find myself wishing I had some Cool Whip, because it’s much easier to make photogenic dollops with that than with Dream Whip. Bryan prefers the taste of Dream Whip, however, while I’m pretty neutral when it comes to non-cream whipped dessert toppings.

For eating it was fine. Bryan said he didn’t like the “crunchy bits”, but I thought the combination of textures was acceptable. The photo shows the actual yield of the recipe (tall glasses for Mum and Dad, and smaller ones for the kiddos) and we managed to eat it all – the tall glasses after supper last night, and the small ones with breakfast this morning. If I were going all-out to pretend it was a fancy dessert, I would have served this with some crisp almond cookies, which would have nicely rounded out the flavors and textures.

I found myself wondering if kids still like this sort of thing. I mean, when I was a kid, a dish of Jell-O was a rather “meh” dessert, but I think I would have been impressed by a layered parfait like this. Of course, everything was simpler 40 years ago, wasn’t it?

Virgin Recipe: Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad


Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad, circa 1974

You might be relieved to know that I was neither looking for nor finding some sort of profound insight in Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad. It’s really just a Jell-O salad.

Not that there wasn’t an interesting side issue, of course. Over the last week or so I’ve stumbled upon a couple of internet entities (they’re on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, and probably some other fora I’ve never heard of) that are dedicated to mid-century kitsch. One, Making It Modern, plumbs the depths of vintage cookbooks for the kookiest-sounding recipes, makes and tastes those recipes, and then re-creates them in a contemporary (i.e., more palatable) way. Another, Velveteen Lounge Kitsch-en, is mainly about cocktails but sometimes turns its attention to food kitsch.

Both entities have followers who are similarly fascinated by vintage cookbooks and scary-sounding recipes, but apparently very few of us have the cojones to actually make and eat them. Others do love to post those old, weird-looking photos, though, so lately I’ve been looking at a lot of dishes that are, to be honest, way scarier than anything in The New Joys of Jell-O.

Maybe that’s why, when I made and ate Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad last weekend, it just didn’t seem all that weird to me.


Mise en place, sans 8 oz. sour cream

The preparation was quite straightforward, with a couple of minor hitches. One ingredient, tarragon vinegar, was not available at my local supermarket, so I bought some dried tarragon, googled a recipe, and made my own. I think it turned out all right, though I wasn’t sure whether the aroma I was detecting was the vinegar or the photographic chemicals Bryan had been fooling with earlier in the day.

Another ingredient, two bouillon cubes, was mildly complicated by the fact that bouillon cubes appear to come in a different size than I remember from the 1970s. I misspoke on the video – my recollection is that they were about a centimeter cubed (not a half-centimeter, which would be ridiculously tiny). The cubes I found were much bigger, so I decided to just use one. That seems to have been adequate.


Another antique market find

As with the Molded Potato Salad, the Jell-O, vinegar, bouillon and pepper are combined, cooled until slightly thickened, and then blended with the “creamy” ingredient. In this case it was sour cream, which had me craving onion-soup dip and potato chips. (Heaven help me, I think I’m going native!) In both recipes, I found it safe and beneficial to whisk in the creamy ingredients to get a smooth texture. I thickened it over a cold water bath, folded in the veggies, and put it in the molds to chill and firm up.

I had found some small vintage Jell-O branded molds at the Cambridge Antique Market a while ago, and this seemed like a good time to finally put them to use. They turned out to be a good serving size for this dish, and also a close match to the photo in the cookbook. Unfortunately, the Jell-O logo failed to imprint itself in the salad. I blame the lube for that (it will accumulate in the nooks and crannies) but it’s a step I’m not willing to skip.


Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad a la Freak Mountain

I’m quite pleased with the way this ended up looking, despite the lack of logo. I daresay it looks better than the 1974 photo. As you can see, the veggies are nicely distributed throughout the mold and give it a festive appearance. My lettuce is rather more, um, assertive, but I like the color.

Now, the weird thing about this is that I actually kind of liked how it tasted. (Stockholm syndrome, maybe?) The vinegar, pepper, and bouillon almost overcame the sweet lemon flavoring, so that the Jell-O part of the salad was more like a ranch dressing. (People like ranch dressing, right?) Meanwhile, the crunchy texture of the vegetables had a satisfying mouthfeel.

I could see doing this with unflavored gelatin, some fresh herbs for seasoning, and a higher proportion and better variety of crisp fresh vegetables. Honestly, this turned out to be not so scary at all (unlike Jellied Prune Whip), though I have to confess that I didn’t eat it all, so I’ve made another donation to Action Against Hunger so that something positive can come from my waste of food.

I’ve also done a tasting video, and I’m less embarrassed by this than I was by the last one. After all my grousing about the drinking culture in New Orleans, I ended up drinking a glass of chilled vinho verde to help me chill out in front of the camera, and that worked out pretty well. (Also, I now have a better understanding of how so many entertainers wind up with substance abuse problems.) Now I just need to figure out how to set loose my sparkling personality. Heh.

Paying Respect: Muhammad Ali

While I’m putting the finishing touching on the regular weekly post, I just wanted to put up a brief one to pay my respects to Muhammad Ali.

I’m not a boxing fan, but he loomed large in my 1970s childhood, as he loomed large everywhere. My best friend and I would make cassette recordings of ourselves pretending to be Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell (though, steeped in satirical comedy as we were, we would be “Coward Hosell”) doing interviews, reciting Ali’s famous lines: “I’m the black Superman…. I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee…” When a black boxing champion has white suburban girls doing their best impressions of him – well, that’s some reach.

I’ve been hearing and reading tributes to him today, and there was a lot that I missed back in the Coward Hosell days. Ali wasn’t a perfect man, but his life was an ongoing effort to do good and be his best. Further, he was an outsized personality who wasn’t afraid to be as big as he was in a world that, frankly, does its level best to deflate people who don’t happen to be white men. The world was a better place because he was in it.

My sympathies go out to his family, his many friends, and his long-time fans. To Ali himself, respect and peace.