Every time I do a Memory Lane post, I have to hang my head in disappointment at how inadequate my notes are. For example, with Mardi Gras Mold, the recipe calls for “1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O Gelatin, any red flavor”. I neglected to note which red flavor I used, and it’s weird, now, how frustrating that is. I mean, that’s not an unimportant detail. The difference between strawberry, raspberry and cherry Jell-O is actually significant. No, really, it is.
I have a growing list of things that I would do if I had a time machine, and one of those things is going back to 2009 to give myself advice on doing this blog. Set up an editorial calendar and pace yourself! Take better notes! Add dates to your notes, for fuck’s sake! Come to think of it, if I could go back to 2009 and tell myself how to do this properly, I’d be well finished with it by now, and hopefully working on some other project. Of course, in that case, I wouldn’t be going back to 2009 to give myself advice, and, oh, damn those time travel paradoxes…
This is one of the sucky things about closing in on 50. I’ve been aware for quite a while that time speeds up as you get older, but it’s only now that I’m getting a sense of how little time I have left, and how little I’ve done with what I’ve had already. Now, sure, 50 isn’t all that old. It’s still safely within the zone of “middle age”. The problem is that most of the interesting stuff is meant to be done, or at least started, when you’re young, when you have peak energy and stamina, and joints that function silently without calling attention to themselves. According to The Life Script™, I’m supposed to be starting to bask in the glory of all that I’ve accomplished throughout my lifetime, receiving a chair or other token for career longevity, and having young grandchildren stay for sleepovers in my spacious suburban abode.
Well, I don’t have a house with spare bedrooms. I don’t have children (so no grandchildren). Thanks to a layoff and subsequent cross-country move, I’m not in MIT’s Quarter-Century Club (though I would be by now if things hadn’t gone a bit pear-shaped in 1998). I do have loads of memories and experiences – marriages, and travel, and getting to know some really excellent people. There’s still more, though, I know it.
I’m not sure what I did with my copy of The Life Script™. Most likely I left it behind at my father’s house when I moved out to go to college, along with a bunch of other stuff I didn’t care about. I’ve never missed it, particularly. I suspect that following it would have made me at least as miserable as it seemed to make my parents, especially since I’ve known from a young age that I want to live a less conventional life. It’s been an interesting 49-and-some years, but the “mid-life crisis” is a boring cliché for a reason. Everyone hits this point and thinks, “What’s next?” I don’t even have a blueprint for it, and letting things happen, as I’ve done all my life, seems rather counterintuitive at this stage. They say that the unexamined life is not worth living (hell, I’ve said it, and then gotten blamed for inspiring mayhem) but the examined life is certainly the longer, bumpier path.
(In case anyone’s wondering, the tone of this post is largely down to the music I’m listening to while I write, which is the soundtrack to the short-lived British TV series Snuff Box. Snuff Box is brilliant, but practically the definition of dark comedy, and the music lends itself to regrets.)
According to my notes, Mardi Gras Mold did not taste of regret. (No, that would be Jellied Prune Whip.) In fact, I indicated that it “seems not unpleasant”. My only specific memory of it is that it was the start of me getting over a lifelong dislike of maraschino cherries. The recipe calls for a third of a cup of the buggers, diced, and while it’s not exactly ham-and-egg-in-Jell-O, I’m sure I had to gird my loins for this one. In fact, at the top of my notes (from when I was just starting to make the recipe) is the comment “Not enough maraschino cherries – so what?” My very last comment was “I wish I’d had enough cherries…” So there you go, a little bit of proof that growth and change are possible as we get older.
As you can see from the photo, the top layer is straight red gelatin, and the bottom layer is a bavarian. In this case, the recipe gives the option of using either Dream Whip or whipped heavy cream. (I went with the Dream Whip. Why? I don’t know…) Suspended in the bavarian layer are the above mentioned diced maraschino cherries and a quarter-cup of slivered blanched almonds. My notes say that “something is missing…”, but also that “nuts do not belong in Jell-O”, which seems pretty obvious when you think about it.
Like many of these layered desserts, the layers did not adhere well, which I attributed to the fact that the bavarian layer seemed to contain a large proportion of Dream Whip. Bryan enjoyed playing with it, though, and the flavor wasn’t too bad, so we gave it two “nasties”.
As for why it’s called Mardi Gras Mold, I’m still wondering about that. At my age, it’s good to know that life still holds a few mysteries…
or A Rhapsody in Prunes
When I first started mulling over Jellied Prune Whip earlier this week, my thinking was that it would fit neatly into the theme of “aging” that seems to be evolving in NJoJ. What comes to mind when you think of prunes? Old people, of course.
I puzzled a little over why prunes are associated with the elderly. I mean, if you think about it, it’s not immediately obvious – prunes are really just giant raisins made out of plums, and raisins (especially in those little packable red boxes) are often associated with children. My theory is that it has to do with the (relatively recent) idea that prunes are only used to relieve constipation, a condition that commonly afflicts older people, if the Metamucil ads are to be believed. (I can guarantee you that this is not an issue here at Freak Mountain.) Mr. Google told me that prunes contain mild laxatives as well as dietary fiber, although research shows that they’re only effective for, erm, maintaining regularity when three or four ounces are eaten daily. As I know now, that’s kind of a lot of prunes, even divided into two or three servings.
Mr. Google also told me that a lot of prune distributors have opted to use the term “dried plums” for their products to try to dispel that “nature’s laxative” image. Sunsweet even markets a product of individually-wrapped prunes (“Ones”) that it was promoting a few years ago as a sort of natural candy. I keep actual candy (Jelly Belly jellybeans, Skittles) at my desk at work, and after a lot of grousing by a co-worker about a lack of healthful snacks, I added a tub of Ones to the counter. It took ages for them to get eaten. The co-worker had some, as did I, but the students wouldn’t touch them. I don’t think “dried plums” are going to catch on anytime soon.
This recipe sent me down a prune rabbit hole. The prune component is listed as “chopped cooked prune pulp”, as though any idiot would know what cooked prune pulp is. Turning to the internets, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only modern cook who’d been flummoxed by prune pulp, and others before me had turned to vintage cookbooks. I found one recipe that involved soaking the prunes in water for several hours, cooking them for a half-hour in the soaking water with a cup of sugar, and then letting them stand for more hours. Ain’t nobody got time for that, and besides, I’ve never encountered prunes so dry and hard that they would require hours of soaking and cooking.
A similar Prune Whip recipe was published in the Dallas Observer several years ago. The writer declared that her prunes seemed soft enough that she didn’t think she’d have to cook them, and I took that as license to be lazy in my own attempt. (The article includes other fun facts about Prune Whip: it was a favorite of President Eisenhower; fruit “whips” made with beaten egg whites were popular in Britain going back to at least the nineteenth century.) In my defense, the pulp of my prunes was so soft that it would be spreadable if I scraped it out of the skins. Besides, the qualifier “chopped” suggests a chunky texture, so I just chopped up the prunes right out of the bag and added the quarter-cup of sugar indicated in the recipe.
The “whip” part is a method of producing gelatin that I’ve used before and like. Lemon Jell-O was prepared in the usual way (with a little grated orange rind and salt added per the recipe), cooled over an ice water bath until slightly thickened, and then whipped to a froth with my trusty MixMaster Junior electric hand mixer. A light, fluffy lemon Jell-O is a delightful thing. Then I had to go and spoil it by folding in the prune bits. That was the tricky part. I was using the folding technique I’d learned from Julia Child – slice the spatula straight down through the fluff, fold carefully, scrape and turn, repeat – but those prune bits were sticky and a bit gooey and would stubbornly clump together. If I’d been using a traditional egg-white-based recipe, this would have been a disaster, but luckily gelatin is made of sturdier stuff. I piled the mixture into far too many dessert glasses and put it into the fridge to set.
Only then did it occur to me to ask Mr. Google for some Prune Whip images so that I’d have an idea of what it was supposed to look like. The photo in the Dallas Observer seems very dark (it was made with unflavored gelatin and prune juice, so it looks particularly prune-y), and indeed my search showed that that one is not really representative. While there wasn’t much uniformity among the images (some were uncooked whips like mine, some were soufflés, and some just looked like the end result of eating prunes), I didn’t see any that looked like light-colored whip with discrete chunks of prune floating in it. “Chopped” be damned, I really should have puréed the prunes. Oh well. It’s not like this is the first time The New Joys of Jell-O has steered me wrong.
We tasted Jellied Prune Whip this morning after breakfast. Whipped cream is a traditional garnish for this dish, and we’ve decided to start keeping a can of Redi-Whip in the fridge because it almost always helps. (Plus the nitrous oxide left in the can at the end is like my prize in the bottom of the box.) In this case, not so much. Bryan and I agreed that it tasted like “an old people thing”, though we couldn’t quite say why. Maybe because it tasted of resignation. Neither of us could imagine our grandparents having eaten such a thing. The prune chunks were a sort of non-sequitur in the whipped gelatin context, unpleasantly reminiscent of raisins added to foods (for which Bryan and I share a distaste), and this confirmed my suspicion that I should have puréed the prunes. Texture-wise, that would have helped, but an even mixture of whipped Jell-O and prune would have made for a worse overall flavor.
Bryan didn’t think it was so bad, but for me this was one of the worse, if not the worst, of the dessert recipes so far. I generously gave him the smaller dish of Whip, and then ended up struggling to finish the larger dish. Possibly I shouldn’t have made the effort. I had a stomach virus a few days ago, and the Prune Whip confused my intestines, which have been rumbling and gurgling all afternoon and evening.
As for insights into aging, Jellied Prune Whip didn’t offer any, although I spent the weekend somewhat unstuck in time. While I was making the Whip, I was listening to a Pandora station I created based on the music featured in the video game Fallout 3, a mid-century mix of post-WWII, pre-rock’n’roll pop music, heavy on the jazz and blues, spiraling out from a base of Ink Spots, Roy Brown, and Billie Holiday. Yesterday evening, Bryan and I binge-watched the entire second series of Grace and Frankie (a “dramedy” about people in their 70s) on Netflix. Jellied Prune Whip shifted from “vintage” to “antique”, and I slid from “aging” to “not really all that old after all”. I just hope that if I’m still alive in 25 years, I can rock a pair of Chucks as well as Lily Tomlin can.