feat. Bonus Jell-O: Watergate Salad
Well, this was another of those weeks that feel almost eternal. I don’t even remember last weekend, it seems like such a long time ago. Leftover pecans and Whipped Cream Mayonnaise were the only evidence that I could find that the weekend after Thanksgiving actually happened. Wait, what? Was Thanksgiving really only a week and a half ago?
Today I finally tossed that Whipped Cream Mayonnaise, and I was happy to have the pecans because I used them in another Jell-O recipe. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s take a quick look at today’s regularly scheduled Jell-O.
Number five on the New Joys of Jell-O countdown is our final recipe from Especially for Junior Cooks, Dream Parfait. There isn’t a lot to say about this one. It’s strawberry Jell-O layered in a tall dessert glass with prepared Dream Whip. That’s it. Make the Jell-O per the directions on the box, chill until it’s thick and jiggly but not quite set, and layer it in glasses with Dream Whip.
I started this one after getting back from the gym this afternoon. I made the Jell-O right away, before changing out of my workout clothes, and popped it in the fridge, figuring I’d come back later, make the Dream Whip, and finish chilling the gelatin over an ice water bath. I ended up leaving the Jell-O in the refrigerator for about two hours, and was surprised to find it nearly set (contrary to the directions on the box, which say it takes four hours). I’m not complaining, as that saved me a bit of bother rather late on a Sunday afternoon. My only other observation is that while this is quite easy to make, it’s a little less so from a food styling perspective. I wish I had put the Dream Whip in a piping bag, because it was difficult to just spoon it in to get neat-looking layers.
It tasted fine. It’s strawberry Jell-O and cream – of course it did.
I wasn’t planning on doing an extra recipe this weekend, but then on Friday, while I was reading all the news about Michael Flynn’s plea deal, I ran across a tweet that Kraft Foods had posted the night before:
Watergate Salad? On a day when a major event in this generation’s “Stupid Watergate” was unfolding? What kind of weird coincidence was that? So of course I had to make it.
But first I had to know – why was it called Watergate Salad? I figured there was a fair chance that it had been on the menu at the Watergate Hotel in the early 1970s (strange as it sounds, such things could be had at restaurants in the 1970s), but when I looked it up, I discovered that the “salad” had been developed in 1975, the year Jell-O pistachio pudding mix was introduced. (So “a tradition for many generations” might be a slight exaggeration, unless they’re referring to fruit flies.) Originally, it was dubbed Pistachio Pineapple Delight, until consumers started asking for the recipe as Watergate Salad. There are a few different rumors circulating about the origin of the name, but nothing that anyone can substantiate. My guess is that it started as sarcasm and quickly caught on. I can respect that.
Watergate Salad is clearly a close relative of ambrosia salad. It consists of five simple ingredients (Jell-O pistachio instant pudding mix, crushed pineapple, chopped pecans, miniature marshmallows, and Cool Whip) that just all get tumped together, mixed, and chilled. You don’t even have to make the pudding mix into pudding; it just goes in dry. (The recipe is on the pudding box if you want to try it.) It takes about five minutes to prepare, if you use pre-chopped nuts.
Bryan and I had it with brunch this morning, as suggested by one of the rumored origin stories. It tasted a lot like ambrosia salad, although it was a lot sweeter than my grandmother’s version. It turns out I was right about sour cream versus Cool Whip. Also, it could use more fruit. When I went to the gym a few hours later, I was thirsty all through my workout and had to keep taking hits from my water bottle. My trainer and I are switching to Sunday sessions, so it’s a good thing I only have a few more of these Jell-O recipes to go.
I could probably eat more of it (though at the moment I have a mild bellyache from the Dream Parfait), but Bryan really wants me to bring the leftovers to the Lab for the students to try. I’m getting too old for this…
In a development that’s making Bryan none too happy, I’ve found myself starting to think in terms of familiar dishes that can be remade with Jell-O. Case in point, as I mentioned last week, my grandmother’s ambrosia. In case you’re interested, here’s my recipe:
- 1 3-oz. package Island Pineapple flavor Jell-O
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 11-oz. can mandarin oranges, drained
- 1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
- 3/4 cup juice from canned fruit
- 1 cup flaked coconut
- 8 oz. sour cream
- approx. half a 10-oz package white mini-marshmallows
- maraschino cherries for garnish, if desired
Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water, add reserved juice. Chill over ice water bath until slightly thickened. Stir/whisk in sour cream. Continue chilling/thickening. While the Jell-O is thickening, lubricate a 6-cup mold; place cherries in bottom of mold. When Jell-O is thickened, fold in oranges, pineapple, coconut and marshmallows. Spoon carefully into mold, trying not to shove cherries around. (Good luck with that.) Refrigerate until set, at least four hours, or overnight. Unmold onto serving platter. There is no need to garnish further.
My grandmother made ambrosia (also known as ambrosia salad, or five-cup salad) for Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was always the five basic ingredients – sour cream, crushed pineapple, mandarin oranges, flaked coconut, and miniature marshmallows. She had a particular holiday-themed plastic dish that she used for serving it that had fluted sides, and for decoration she would place a maraschino cherry in each curve around the side and one in the center.
I know that there are a lot of variations on the recipe, and I got curious and did a bit of research. I discovered that I’m not the first person to do a Jell-O version, although the other ones I found tend to use orange Jell-O and omit the marshmallows. I found a couple of instances of people putting prepared Jell-O in ambrosia, such as this story from NPR, which I find frankly bizarre. The other instance – well, watch if you dare…
There are several options for the creamy dressing besides sour cream. I’ve seen a lot of recipes that call for Cool Whip, which is anathema as far as I’m concerned, but it seems to be very popular, either by itself or combined with some other creamy ingredient. Some recipes call for real whipped cream, which should be fine, though I suspect that would make the dish too sweet for my taste. Another variation is thinned and beaten cream cheese, often folded into whipped cream or Cool Whip. Health-conscious cooks use yogurt. Mayonnaise is mentioned, but rarely. I even found a recipe that omits the coconut and marshmallows but includes cottage cheese – one of those things that, once seen, cannot be unseen.
Of course, the greatest variety is in the fruit. While citrus and coconut are traditional, some people use canned fruit cocktail (ick), bananas, strawberries, dates, and much more. The fruit can be fresh, frozen, canned, or some combination thereof – whatever the cook likes and/or has on hand. Nuts are sometimes added as well, usually pecans or almonds.
Heading further down the rabbit hole, I looked into the history (or perhaps a better term would be “evolution”) of ambrosia. This article lays it out pretty well (and is an enjoyable read if you have a few minutes), but I’ll summarize: Ambrosia got its start as a citrus fruit salad in the American South, where such fruits are native, not long after the end of the Civil War. The completion of the trans-continental railroad made it possible to include coconut, which was shipped to San Francisco from Hawaii. At that time, it was a simple layering of fruits, coconut, and sugar, sometimes dressed with fruit juice or sherry. Over time, this came to be served as a holiday treat, sometimes with cake and whipped cream. Starting in the 1920s, promotional recipes for a product called Whitman’s Marshmallow Whip (a sort of powdered marshmallow creme mix) introduced a new variation on the traditional fruit salad, and the creamy version was born. At about the same time, confectioners were inventing marshmallow candies that could be made in discrete pieces (the marshmallows we know today), and these were quickly incorporated into ambrosia recipes. The gelatin variation first made its appearance in 1950. By the time I was enjoying my grandmother’s ambrosia as a kid in the 1970s, its variants were legion.
What’s kind of strange and interesting to me is that, although all of my general-purpose cookbooks include some sort of ambrosia recipe, ambrosia is considered to be primarily a Southern dish. It’s not often that I encounter someone up here in Yankeeland who grew up with ambrosia as a traditional holiday dish. In fact, I’ve encountered a good amount of snobbery about it. (For example, one Christmas at the home of one of Bryan’s mother’s sisters, her in-laws brought a large bowl of ambrosia salad, which was regarded with the ol’ hairy eyeball by Bryan’s mother’s family.) The thing is, I don’t have any Southern roots. My maternal ancestors came to Massachusetts from France with a generations-long stopover in Canada along the way. So how did both ambrosia and tourtières become part of the family holiday menu? My grandmother passed away some 20 years ago, so I guess this will have to remain a mystery.
Probably I will never have more than a tenuous grasp on the “white trash” in my background, but I can’t bring myself to disavow it, even though it’s not really something that I share with most of the people I know now, here in my life in Nerdvana. Besides, there’s no point being embarrassed or ashamed about something you can’t control. It’s one of those odd things that make me unique.
Anyway, to no one’s surprise, the Festive Ambrosia Mold turned out fine. The Jell-O simply gave shape and hold to a dish that would otherwise have been formlessly heaped in a bowl (preferably a fancy glass one, according to most of the videos I watched.).There are only a couple of small tweaks I might make. One, despite the pineapple flavor Jell-O, I don’t think there was quite enough crushed pineapple in this. Two, I really should have taken all the cherries in the jar and lined them up around the bottom of the ring mold, instead of trying to make a pattern based on the fluting. Better still, if I had used a mold with little round indentations in which the cherries could have sat. Maybe halve some cherries and place them on top of the Jell-O after it was unmolded? I suppose I could have cut up the cherries and incorporated them into the mixture, but my grandmother never did that. I think she would have approved of Festive Ambrosia Mold.