Memory Lane: Topaz Parfait

coffee-colored Jell-O layered in glasses with Dream Whip

Topaz Parfait á la Freak Mountain

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.

a page of my handwritten notes

So many thoughts about Topaz Parfait…

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.

Alien Caffeine coffee mug in front of computer

Oh, so meta…

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, 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

minty green pie garnished with whipped cream swirls and a big "pi" in the center

Let’s call this “Grasshopper Pi”

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

photo of the salad before serving

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.

lettuce, green beans, green pepper, tuna, heavy cream, tomato, lemon Jell-O, vinegar, anchovies, mayonnaise, red onion, Good Seaons Italian dressing, black olives, egg

It’s hard to imagine, but all of these things went into a single Jell-O recipe.

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.

picture of the recipe as it appears in the book

Proof that I am not making this up…

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).

tuna-veggie salad in mold before adding Jell-O

Jellied Salad Niçoise Sans Jelly

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

Virgin Recipe: Brandied Cherry Ring

Hello. My name is Terra, and I’m a procrastinator.

It’s a problem I’ve had as long as I can remember. I was one of those kids who’d wait until after supper to start on a school project that was due the next day. I still remember one horrible night when I was in fourth grade, when I was supposed to make a dish that represented my ethnic heritage to bring to school and share with my classmates. Since I’m several generations away from my immigrant ancestors, the only thing my mother could think of was petit-fours as a nod to my French ancestry, and she left me to try to make some from scratch from a recipe. I’d never made cake or frosting from scratch before, so I was up ridiculously late for a ten-year-old. I was exhausted the next day at school, and the petit-fours turned out awful. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson after that, but there were late-night paper-writing sessions and study all-nighters right through my school years.

Dream Whip, cherry Jello-O, brandy and canned cherries

Looks promising, no? No…

Brandied Cherry Ring brought out all the old procrastinating instincts. Sometimes I procrastinate because I have a bit of a perfectionist streak. Sometimes I procrastinate because I dread doing something. This was mostly the latter case. Mainly it was the cherries; as regular readers of NJoJ may recall, I don’t really like cherries. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the brandy, either. We only keep it around for cooking; I never drink the stuff.

This recipe bears an uncanny resemblance to Cherry Chiffon, except that the liquid from the canned cherries goes into the Jell-O, and instead of Cool Whip the creamy part of the bavarian layer is Dream Whip. Then, of course, there’s the brandy. There isn’t a lot of it in the recipe, just a third of a cup that gets “heated” and poured over the cherries, which then sit for “about 30 minutes”. Something about the smell of the brandy was disturbing. It was less a “Proustian memory” and more of what’s commonly referred to these days as a “trigger”-

[   ] …

And I’m back. I just went to YouTube to put on a Fallout playlist because Pandora keeps stopping dead in the middle of a song, and I got sidetracked catching up on Jenna Marbles, and then I decided to treat myself to a viewing of the Mint Royale “Blue Song” video, but I’m finally back, swinging along to “Jingle Jangle Jingle” and hopefully ready to carry on with the Jell-O.

After soaking the cherries, the brandy/cherry liquid gets added to the watered-down canned cherry juice. The end result is about one and two-thirds cups room-temperature liquid, which gets added to a double batch of hot cherry Jell-O. This, I think, is where the recipe kind of goes wrong, making a double batch instead of two single batches. The recipe says to thicken the Jell-O, add the cherries to half of it, put the Jell-O/cherry mixture in a six-cup ring mold, and chill it until set but not firm. I put the Jell-O/cherry mixture in the mold in the fridge, but meanwhile I had the other half of the Jell-O still thickening over an ice-water bath that I had to work with before it got too much thicker. I added half a prepared batch of Dream Whip to that, and thickened it some more over the bath to kill some time, until it got quite viscous and I knew I had to add it to the mold whether the cherry layer was firm or not.

two-layer ring mold garnished with leftover Dream Whip

Brandied Cherry Ring

Well, the cherry layer wasn’t, quite, as you can see in the photo. It looks like the cherries stopped the bavarian layer from sinking all the way to the bottom of the mold. I think it would have come out more neatly if I’d made the layers as separate batches, which is how Cherry Chiffon was done.

I do like the added depth of color from the cherry juice, and the slight blending of the layers looks cool. Since I had an extra cup of Dream Whip, I took the opportunity to practice my piping-bag skill. The decoration makes this mold look kind of like a crown, but while I was doing this there was a faint aroma of “cheap dive bar” coming off of the mold that contrasted weirdly with the look of the thing.

When Bryan and I finally got around to tasting this after dinner, it proved to be not as bad as I was expecting. The texture of the canned cherries was unfortunate, as always, but the flavor wasn’t too bad. The brandy was almost undetectable, except that it was there in the cherries like a hazy, distant memory.

Bryan’s assessment: “Meh.”

Virgin Recipe: Parfait Pie

Where to start with this one? Where to start?

Actually, for eating Parfait Pie is not bad at all, but I was scratching my head over the name. I’d always thought that a parfait dessert is one that’s layered.

Wikipedia to the rescue! It turns out that the layered parfait is an American dessert. In France, a parfait (or “perfect”) is a sort of frozen custard. I’m going to be generous and assume that it’s the latter dessert that’s being alluded to in the name “Parfait Pie”.

raspberry pie in chocolate crumb ceust garnished with piped Dream Whip

Parfait Pie

So, with that settled, Parfait Pie is simply Jell-O (a three-ounce packet dissolved in 1.25 cup boiling water, not cooled with additional cold water) mixed with a pint of vanilla ice cream, set in a pie shell, and decorated with Dream Whip. I deviated a little from the recipe in using a chocolate cookie crumb crust instead of a plain pie shell, just because I thought it would make for a nicer pie. (It did.) I’ve been having kind of a rough time lately, and I need all the help I can get.

round ice cream scoop

The right tool for the job…

In case anyone wants to try to make this, I can definitely recommend using a small, round ice cream scoop and gradually adding the ice cream to the hot Jell-O liquid. The liquid will cool off quickly, making it harder to get the ice cream to melt, but the small scoops melt well with maybe a little mashing towards the end. The recipe says to put the still-liquid Jell-O and ice cream mixture into the pie crust, but I decided to thicken it over an ice-water bath so I could heap it into the pie plate if I needed to. As it turned out, it fit perfectly into a nine-inch pie plate with a crumb crust made with roughly three-quarters of a package of Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers and a quarter cup of melted butter. (If I were doing it again, I’d use more butter, but this sort of worked.) The pie filling took a while to thicken, and I was a little concerned about how firm it would be when it was set, but I’ve been able to get proper slices out of it – it’s firm, but only just.

The other mildly puzzling thing is that the recipe calls for a garnish done with one cup of Dream Whip. Dream Whip comes in packets that make up about two cups of whipped topping. That means you’re supposed to make a batch of Dream Whip and use half of it – and do what with the other half? I decided to just use the whole thing to garnish the pie, but found that I had (surprise, surprise) about half of the batch left over in my piping bag. I served the Parfait Pie with extra dollops of Dream Whip on the side. Bryan claims to prefer Dream Whip to Cool Whip, but I’m not sure that that means he actually likes it.

The recipe says to use either orange, strawberry or raspberry Jell-O. I let Bryan pick, and he chose raspberry. (I think I would have preferred strawberry, to be honest).

Orange was, of course, right out. Strictly speaking, I don’t need to do this since I’ve successfully avoided using orange Jell-O for this recipe, but I think that in honor of Presidents Day, I’m going to make donations to Planned Parenthood and the International Rescue Committee. This has been a weekend of “resisting” as well as making Jell-O. Yesterday Bryan and I “stood up for science” at a demonstration in Boston that was organized to coincide with the AAAS annual meeting. I’m kind of a “geek groupie”, and I make my living supporting science, so this was the place to be on Sunday.

people with signs at demonstration in front of Trinity Church

Standing up for science in Copley Square, Boston

Memory Lane: Pastel Dessert

calico cat napping on a desk chair

Can’t work, cat’s sleeping in my chair…

It’s been one of those days. We’re having our second (or are we now on the third?) snowstorm in less than a week. This after an exceptionally mild and mostly snow-free winter, so it seems churlish to feel oppressed by this, but from about 10:00 this morning, every time I’ve looked out the windows I’ve seen snow falling. It’s been a winter’s worth in a few days. So much for the hope that we might be spared dealing with ice dams this year.

February is the time of year when I most keenly regret moving from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived for about two and a half years, back to the northeast. In San Francisco, after a brief, rainy winter made endurable by the many evergreens and palm trees, springtime begins to emerge in February as though it never really ended. In that temperate climate, you don’t get the barren branches and brown grasses of a new England winter. Here in the northeast, the leaves have mostly fallen by Halloween, and when it starts snowing in November or December it feels like a mercy because you’re still willing to believe that everything is prettier under that blanket of white. By February, it’s just cold and wet, and a nuisance to walk or drive through.

On the other hand, I just got an email from MIT announcing that the Institute is closed tomorrow. That’s two snow days in less than a week. So there’s that.

pale green Jell-O bavarian in dessert glasses with Dream Whip garnish and cherries on top

Not the pastel color I was going for, but this works…

Anyway. Pastel Dessert. It sounds dull, and mostly it was, but I vaguely remember it because it turned into kind of a goof.

The recipe is pretty simple, starting with Jell-O vanilla pudding mix, the kind you cook rather than the instant kind. It’s cooked together with a packet of Jell-O, any flavor – “Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture comes to a full boil and is thickened and clear.” That’s right, thickened and clear, and according to my notes, it looked as weird as that sounds. Then it’s chilled until it’s, er, more thickened, I guess, and mixed together with a prepared packet of Dream Whip.

Now, the goofy thing is, I made this around Chanukah, so I thought it’d be nice if I made this with the Berry Blue flavor so I’d have blue Pastel Dessert. As you might be able to see in the photo, I failed to account for yellow dye in the pudding mix, and I ended up with a dessert that was a not-unpleasant pistachio green. It looks rather festive with its Dream Whip garnish and bright red maraschino cherries on top.

Unfortunately, it had an odd flavor and texture. Berry Blue is a good flavor for visual effects, but it doesn’t taste all that good. I probably would have done better with a red flavor. Live and learn…

Virgin Recipe: Banana Nut Ring with Ginger Topping

photo of dish from book

Banana Nut Ring with Ginger Topping, circa 1974

At last, I get to do an Orange Boycott post! (After the last couple of weeks, I was really looking forward to this.) As you can sort of tell in the photo from the book, Banana Nut Ring calls for orange Jell-O. I substituted Island Pineapple flavor, which I think tastes better anyway.

This recipe is a two-parter. First, there’s the ring mold, which is simply Jell-O with banana slices and chopped pecans stirred into it once it’s thickened up. There are a couple of issues with this.

The first, as I’ve noted in Mardi Gras Mold and Honey Pecan Bavarian, is that nuts in Jell-O are just weird. Those are two textures that do not go well together. Luckily, I like pecans, so this one wasn’t nasty on top of being weird.

The second is the bananas. I had to try not to be too annoyed, because it’s just “banana nature”, but the slices would stick together (which I had discovered with Peach-Banana Dessert but I guess it didn’t bug me as much then). You would think that once you add banana slices to a bowl of thickened Jell-O, the Jell-O will act as a coating or lubricant to keep the slices separate, but as much as I stirred and tried to separate them, the slices kept clumping up. It’s best to look upon this as an exercise in patience.


Ingredient for Banana Nut Ring with Ginger Topping

Anyway, I whipped up the Jell-O ring and chilled it overnight. Upon unmolding it, I discovered one small drawback to using the Island Pineapple flavor – the mold was a very odd color, I think rather like how Bryan sees green things because of his colorblindness. On the other hand, the peculiar yellow-brown hues reminded me of color palettes that were popular in the 1970s, so that was kind of a happy accident. Okay, not so much happy, but appropriate.

The second part of the recipe is the “Ginger Topping”, a bit of a misnomer because it’s pretty thick, and it gets piled into the center of the ring mold rather than spread on top of it. This is just a batch of Dream Whip with crushed pineapple and slivered candied ginger folded into it. Tasting it, I decided that the Ginger Topping is a bit of all right. Because of the fairly strong vanilla flavor of the Dream Whip, it reminded me of pineapple upside-down cake, which I haven’t had since I was a kid, but I may have to make it sometime soon, even if I have to use a store-bought cake mix to do it. Also, it reminded me of ambrosia salad a bit, plus I dig candied ginger (I was noshing on it while cutting up what I needed for the recipe), so what’s not to like?

the finished product on a platter

Banana Nut Ring with Ginger Topping á la Freak Mountain

The finished product was straight outta the 1970s, and I was pleased. The photo looks strange, but I swear that was the actual color of the thing. It was like someone had sent it over in a customized DeLorean, express delivery from 1974.

For eating, this was surprisingly good. Yes, I’m saying “good”. For once, the flavors blended together nicely in a tropical (that is, southern United States) mélange. With the topping, it was easy enough to overlook the peculiar textural note of the pecan chunks in the Jell-O. The flavor of pineapple was predominant, but the pecans, bananas, and Dream Whip were assertive enough. I would have liked more ginger flavor, though; rather than trying to sliver the slices of crystallized ginger, I should have chopped them up fine so that they’d be more thoroughly distributed throughout the topping.

The main drawback to this recipe was that it was relatively straighforward and quick to make, and while preparing it and listening to music took me to my happy place for a while, I didn’t get to spend enough time there.

On the positive side, once I hit “publish” on this one, I’ll be all caught up with my editorial calendar, and that’s one less thing to feel crappy about. Woo hoo!