Virgin Recipe: Peach Gem Pie
I was a bad girl this week. I deviated significantly from the original recipe for Peach Gem Pie, which is, as you can probably tell from the old photo, just orange Jell-O with peach slices in it, in a pie crust. Oh, yes, and there’s a little almond extract in the Jell-O. Because of my Orange Boycott, I was planning on substituting peach Jell-O for orange anyway, but then after the week we’ve had here in the U.S. and abroad, I just couldn’t face Jell-O in a pie shell. I just couldn’t.
So it occurred to me that I could do what the U.S. Congress failed to do this week – I could take a not-so-good thing and make it better. Following on the success of Easy Fruit Tarts, I decided to turn Peach Gem Pie into a Peach Gem Tart.
I started with Julia Child’s sweet short crust recipe and made a nine-inch tart shell. I spread a layer of French vanilla Jell-O instant pudding in the bottom of the tart shell, arranged Del Monte canned peach slices (so sue me, peaches are well out of season right now) in a pretty pattern on the pudding, and spooned thickened peach Jell-O over the peaches to form a glaze. I forgot to add the almond extract to the Jell-O (rather than listening to music while I worked, I was listening to NPR programming and got distracted) but remedied that somewhat by serving the tart with almond-flavored whipped cream.
The end result was not bad at all. It certainly looks prettier than the pie shown in the book. Orange Jell-O has a garish hue, but peach Jell-O is actually a rather pretty color. The flavor is subtler, too, and I wonder whether it would have made a difference if I’d remembered to add the almond extract. Probably not. These Jell-O recipes tend to be pretty timid about the added flavors. I was a little dubious about whether the almond flavor would go with the peaches, but in the whipped cream it worked much better than I expected.
I did make a few mistakes. The main one is that the crust turned out tough; most likely I overworked it, got a little cocky after it turned out so well last time. Another is that I added too much almond extract to the whipped cream. A teaspoon of vanilla extract to a half-pint of whipping cream works well; a teaspoon of almond extract is, I’m thinking, about twice as much as you want. (The aftertaste, it burns…) Finally, one three-ounce package each of pudding and Jell-O is way too much for a single nine-inch tart. It was fine because I ate the leftovers, but if anyone wants to try to recreate this, I recommend planning on making two tarts. Seriously, this turned out to be a decent dessert. Bring them to Easter dinner. The colors are seasonal, and I could see this working well after a main course of ham. Ham from a can. Oh, the memories… Did I mention it was a rough week?
Memory Lane: Topaz Parfait
Well, we’re back to that weedy, rutted path known as Memory Lane.
I do have a vague recollection of Topaz Parfait, because it’s one of those recipes where the flavor of the Jell-O clashes rather badly with the additional ingredients. Appearing in the third chapter of The New Joys of Jell-O (“Bring on the Super Desserts”), Topaz Parfait gives the cook a chance to use the cubed gelatin technique while going on a little flavor adventure – and I mean “adventure” in the “bad planning” sense.
The adventure starts with a cup of strong coffee. Now, making coffee at Freak Mountain is always a bit of a production, because Bryan only buys whole beans, which have to be weighed on the kitchen scale and ground in the fancy-pants Italian burr grinder, to the right degree of coarseness or fineness, just before brewing. Our three main coffee-making options are French press, Chemex (I think we might have a reusable cotton filter somewhere), or a basic pour-over dripping into a thermal carafe. For this recipe, I used instant espresso.
The coffee is heated to boiling (always a bad idea with coffee), and lemon Jell-O and sugar are dissolved in it. Then cold water and brandy are added. I think you see where this is going. The Jell-O is poured into a square pan to chill until firm so that it can be cut into cubes, which are then layered with Dream Whip that’s been prepared with the addition of a little brown sugar and brandy. The Dream Whip, at least, is improved by this treatment.
Apparently the first major problem with this recipe was the smell. I don’t remember this specifically, but I can believe it. Even the nice Jell-O recipes can make the fridge smell a little funky. According to my notes, it “[made] the fridge smell like someone spilled a bottle of stout and didn’t clean it up”. I do like stout, but for drinking, not as an air freshener. Of course, the real culprit here was the brandy, which is something I don’t really like anyway, but the combination of brandy, coffee, and lemon Jell-O just doesn’t work well.
Since I’m at least a somewhat nice person, I let Bryan have the smaller dish of Topaz Parfait and took the tall one for myself. I finished it off, but only because Bryan said I couldn’t and I’m a sucker for a thrown-down gauntlet. It seems the aftertaste was quite something, and called for a palate cleanser of miniature marshmallows. We gave it three nasties, which puts it on the same level as Winter Fruit Mold (a/k/a Jell-O Fruitcake), Salmon Dill Mousse and Spanish Tuna Salad.
The thing about this recipe, and a couple of others, is that it made me want to do a proper coffee jelly, and I keep meaning to do it but haven’t gotten around to it yet. What I’d really like to do is a jelly version of Thai iced coffee, which I think would be really good, but I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory recipe for Thai coffee. I’d like to make it replicating the sweetened condensed milk that floats on top of the coffee at first and slowly swirls down into the coffee, combining with it in a sort of Brownian motion that’s intriguing to watch if you can resist drinking the coffee long enough.
A few months ago, after hunting around a bit at our local H-Mart, I found something called “instant Thai coffee drink” that I thought might be just the ticket, but it turned out to be instant coffee with sugar and, I’m guessing, powdered non-dairy creamer. (I’m enjoying some right now in my “Alien Caffeine Espresso Bar” souvenir mug from the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico.) Back to the drawing board, I guess.
So we’ve got some new recipes coming up for the next couple of weeks, and then I’m going to be taking a weekend off to participate in the Ladies Rock Camp Boston fundraiser for the Girls Rock Campaign Boston. It’s basically a weekend-long rock bootcamp culminating in a showcase, possibly at a very cool local club – and I won’t lie, I’m nervous as hell about it. I’ve scarcely picked up a guitar in years, but probably someone will stick an open-tuned guitar in my hands and tell me where on the fretboard I should be holding down all the strings with my index finger to play a song. I’ve heard some distortion pedal lessons might be involved. I guess if worse comes to worst they can always take me off of guitar and put me on cowbell.
I need to start getting into a more musical mindset. Maybe I should be listening to more Chuck Berry… (R.I.P.)
And while I’m R.I.P.ing, I really should say a few words about Robert Osborne. He was a writer and film historian, best known to me and many others as the host of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel (which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the few worthwhile channels left on cable, thanks largely to Osborne). Before discovering TCM I had loved classic film, but Robert Osborne always had something to say that added to my appreciation. The breadth and depth of his knowledge about film were enormous, as was his enthusiasm, and he was generous with both in his work at TCM. He was also warm and kind, and, judging by the tribute programming they’ve been running on TCM this weekend, beloved by everyone who met him. He was the best of good eggs, and we were fortunate to have him share the planet with us. He died on March 6, and my heart goes out to the many, many people who share my sorrow.
Pie for Pi Day
It’s Pi Day once again, and Mother Nature conveniently sent a blizzard to give me the day off from work, so I made you a pie!
I only have a couple of pie recipes left in the Project, so instead of using one of those, I found a recipe for this 1970s holiday favorite, Grasshopper Pie. We have two cookbooks that include recipes for this. One is a volume of the Time Life The Good Cook series that Bryan rescued from his mother’s house; that version of the recipe is more “from scratch” and includes gelatin and superfine sugar. The other, my trusty old Betty Crocker cookbook, simplifies things a bit by melting down “jet-puffed” marshmallows. Of course, I used the Betty Crocker recipe.
The pie is named after a minty cocktail that was popular in the mid-twentieth century, and ingredient-wise it’s pretty similar. The base of the pie is marshmallow and unsweetened whipped cream, and it’s flavored with crème de menthe and white crème de cacao. In a chocolate cookie crumb crust, it tastes like mint chocolate chip ice cream, and I can see why I liked it as a kid. (It’s not bad now either, maybe just a tad too sweet…) The grownups pretended to make a big deal of the fact that it had liqueur in it, but this pie has less of a kick to it than, say, Almond Joy Creme Pie.
Besides the excuse to make a pie, I wanted to do a Pi Day post in support of science. It seems a little crazy to even have to say that, but in this era of “alternative facts” I guess it’s become important to stand up for real facts, and for the process to go about finding them, which is all that science is.
I’ve been mulling over how to approach this topic, and what keeps catching my attention is the growing skepticism (fueled by our president and his administration) towards experts, conflating them with some notion of “the elite”. I get it, kind of. I grew up working class, and I’m well familiar with that streak of insecurity that says, “What makes those eggheads think they’re better than me?” It’s only gotten worse as we’ve latched onto the notion that a college education is the only pathway out of a life of burger-flipping and other jobs that “aren’t a career”. When I was growing up, it was perfectly respectable to go into a trade if one wasn’t academically inclined; now, it seems, any way of making a living that doesn’t require a college degree is looked down upon, and that’s just not right. But we’re not going to win back respect for all kinds of honest work by devaluing work that requires more education.
Yes, in a way, science is the province of an “elite”, insofar as pursuing a career in science requires many years of education, as well as a deep curiosity, and the discipline and doggedness to learn and assimilate concepts that are genuinely challenging – and the humility to make lots of mistakes and learn from them. It’s elite in the same way that, for example, being an auto mechanic is elite – not everyone has the interest or temperament to work with the systems that make a car run, and learning to do that work requires years of learning, and curiosity and patience. I grew up around gearheads, and they tend to be passionate about cars in much the same way that scientists are passionate about their work. I respect the hell out of both. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Modern society is complex, and we need our scientists as much as we need our mechanics, and our plumbers, carpenters, sanitation workers, food service workers, and administrative assistants. Some mysterious gravitational force drew me to MIT even though I’m not, strictly speaking, a math/science type of person, and I feel as though I’ve found my tribe there. I support scientists, both in the course of making a living and in principle, because I appreciate and respect what they’re doing. I understand that the years of learning and training that they’ve done make them trustworthy as experts in their chosen fields. I understand that when 97% of scientists agree on a particular conclusion, we should probably listen to them.
I’m looking forward to the March for Science next month. Hopefully the weather will be a little better than today….
Virgin Recipe: Jellied Salad Niçoise
Did you miss me last week? No? Okay, but I missed you. I missed you so much, I made you this lovely Jellied Salad Niçoise.
These savory Jell-O recipes keep disappointing me – not because they’re so bad, but because they’re not bad enough. Jellied Salad Niçoise had so much potential, and then failed to live up to it. Just look at the motley crew of ingredients I had to assemble for this. Anchovies! Mayonnaise! Italian dressing! The only way that this could come out was “badly”.
So I got stuck into preparing it, and this was possibly the most involved Jell-O recipe I’ve done so far. It took a good two hours to put together, much of which involved chopping vegetables, although it all started off with hard-boiling an egg.
Rather than describe the whole process, I’m just going to give you a picture of the recipe, straight out of the book. Even just reading it, it sounds kind of nuts.
The weirdest part is that it requires what I think of as “a single batch” (that is, a three-ounce box) of Jell-O, with less cold water than usual. It wasn’t enough to cover the solid ingredients in the mold, and I was sure that when I went to unmold it, the whole thing would fall apart and be a complete disaster. I was pretty excited by that prospect, because I thought it would make for some good video. It’s been too long since this blog has lived up to its true potential as a sort of culinary “Jackass”, and I was hopeful, but this surprised me. As you can see from the photo, Jellied Salad Niçoise unmolded unexpectedly well. I was sure that the loose bed of chopped lettuce at the bottom would make the whole thing unstable and lead to a collapse, but I suppose by now I should have more faith in the Jell-O.
For eating, it wasn’t very good, but it could have been worse. It turned out that one chopped up boiled egg wasn’t enough to stink up the whole dish, and even the anchovy-tinged mayonnaise was less repulsive than it could have been (unless, I suppose, you’re one of those people who just hate mayonnaise on principle).
While I was in the midst of making it, Bryan strolled into the kitchen and pointed out that, if not for the Jell-O, this wouldn’t be such a terrible recipe. Indeed, the Salad Niçoise didn’t look so bad in the mold before I poured Jell-O over it and piled on the chopped lettuce. Aside from leaving out the Jell-O, I would have preferred a simpler dressing, just some oil and vinegar with a little salt and pepper, which is what I generally prefer for salad dressing. We don’t use store-bought bottled dressings, which is why I used the Good Seasons.
Needless to say, Bryan and I didn’t eat more than one portion of Jellied Salad Niçoise, and the rest went straight into the garbage disposal. A donation is being made to Action Against Hunger to atone.
I’m trying not to go too heavy on the politics here, but I’m still resisting, and for the video I wore a “pussy hat” made by my friend Donna, who has an Etsy shop and has been doing a brisk business in pussy hats lately. (She also makes other kinds of hats, jewelry, accessories, and toys.) If you like it, please check out her shop, Via Donna, at https://www.etsy.com/shop/ViaDonna.