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…
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…
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.
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?
Originally posted December 6, 2009
First of all, I’d like to apologize for the time lag in posting and in responding to comments. I’ve been battling a cold all week and pretty much just crashing after supper. Luckily, it hasn’t progressed beyond a mild head cold and didn’t turn out to be swine flu, which is what we all worry about when we get the sniffles these days. The curative properties of Jell-O, maybe?
Anyway, thanks to The Joy of Jello Project, until the middle of next August, “holiday” to me means “captive audience.” It also means “an opportunity to inflict some Jell-O on my in-laws.”
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I managed to get out of work a little early, got in a leg workout at the gym, ate supper, and spent three hours making two Jell-O recipes. I selected the reasonably pleasant-sounding Pink Lady Pie, and for that seasonal flavor I selected Layered Cranberry-Apple Mold.
Pink Lady Pie
Pink Lady Pie was one of the more interesting ones to make so far because it’s fairly involved. The first step was prebaking a pie crust, and in the spirit of NJoJ and 1974, I used a Mrs. Smith’s pie crust I found in the freezer case at the supermarket. (It turned out to be pretty decent, probably better than what I could have made from scratch.) I made the filling while waiting for the nicely browned crust to cool. I had to heat three egg yolks, water and sugar over a double-boiler until the mixture was slightly thickened. It had been a long time since I’d used a double-boiler, so on my first attempt I overheated the water and ended up cooking the eggs. I had to dump them and start over. For once we had plenty of eggs in the fridge, and my second attempt was successful.
Here things started to get a little funky. The Jell-O was supposed to be added to and dissolved in the egg mixture. The raspberry Jell-O I happened to have on hand was the sugar-free kind. Even in boiling water it’s difficult to get sugar-free Jell-O to dissolve completely, and it proved to be impossible in the merely hot water/egg/sugar mixture. I ended up with little specks of semi-dissolved gelatin throughout the mixture, and judging by the appearance I didn’t think this was so bad, as it gave it a suggestion of naturalness – always a welcome result with Jell-O.
While the egg/gelatin mixture thickened over an ice water bath, I prepared a packet of Dream Whip, and then whipped up three egg whites with sugar and a little vanilla extract to make a meringue. First the meringue and then half of the Dream Whip got folded together with the gelatin mixture to make a fluffy girly-pink filling for the pie shell.
After chilling overnight the pie filling was firm, and on Thanksgiving morning I got out the piping bag and a star tip and decorated the pie with the rest of the Dream Whip. I was doing better than I expected with the piping bag, until I was finished and then somehow managed to express a random blob of Whip onto the pie. Still, it doesn’t look so bad, does it?
Well, the proof of the Jell-O is in the eating, and it didn’t taste so bad either. I had to add a nasty for the Dream Whip, which continues to leave me underwhelmed, and for the undissolved specks of Jell-O, which had a peculiar rubbery texture reminiscent of mouse cartilage.
Layered Cranberry-Apple Mold
Layered Cranberry-Apple Mold is stealth scary. It sounds innocent enough – two great tastes that go great together and all that. However, the top layer contains canned whole-berry cranberry sauce (not scary to a lot of you, maybe, but I strongly prefer the jellied kind) and the bottom layer contains – oh, I don’t think I’ll give it away just yet.
It started out like the beginning sequence of a 1970s horror movie, where nice, normal people are doing something pleasant, not realizing that a chainsaw-wielding maniac or a phalanx of zombies lurks in their near future. I dissolved two packages of lemon Jell-O, a quarter-cup of sugar and a quarter-teaspoon of salt in two cups of boiling water. I added a cup and a half of cran-apple drink and set aside two cups of the resulting liquid, adding my cranberry sauce to the remainder and chilling that over ice water until it was thickened. This was poured into my bundt pan, which I thought would do for the eight-cup ring mold specified in the recipe, and popped it into the fridge.
This is the point where the sun was just slipping below the horizon and one normal person, probably the dorky guy (somebody’s younger brother, maybe) had disappeared into the woods/house/mall and his friends were starting to get worried. I chilled the set-aside two cups of gelatin mixture over my ice water bath until it was thickened. (Cue theremin or screechy strings.) Then I added – two cups of Cool Whip! And then (crescendo) a quarter-cup of mayonnaise!
(Temporary release of tension.) I folded in a finely-chopped apple, and carefully spooned this layer onto the cranberry layer and put it all into the refrigerator to chill overnight.
(Amping up the score again for more deaths, and a gory denouement….) The unmolding was only semi-successful, as I failed to get it even remotely centered on the bottom part of the Rubbermaid cake carrier I was going to use to transport the Jell-O to Thanksgiving dinner in outer Metro-West. The layers were at least properly melded together, but the bundt pan was again a little too large for the recipe. I’m just glad I took a photo before we packed everything up and headed out to the burbs, because this didn’t survive the drive intact. The g-forces of stop-and-go traffic were just too much for the gelatin, and the ring got pulled apart. I’m still not sure exactly how to solve this problem, apart from leaving the Jell-O in the mold until serving time. Given my mixed success with unmolding, this strikes me as a risky proposition.
As for the taste, well, as an adult I’m better able to bear things like whole-berry cranberry sauce than I was when I was a child and decided I didn’t care for them, so the top layer wasn’t so terrible. The bottom layer, however…. The flavor of the mayonnaise was definitely noticeable, and I could only conclude that its inclusion in the recipe was an act of pure sadism on the part of the General Foods R&D drones. Even drugs couldn’t explain this. While it wasn’t unbearably nasty, we didn’t want seconds.
As For The In-Laws….
I got no feedback from them, because none of them tried either dish. I suspect that my mother-in-law put out the word that I was bringing Jell-O, and every other woman in the family made a dessert, even the aunt who simply does not cook. Once again, Bryan and I were the only tasters.
So we ended up bringing home most of the Pink Lady Pie and the Layered Cranberry-Apple Mold. We ate all of the pie over the course of a couple of days, though not eagerly. Showing yet another way in which Dream Whip is a lame substitute for whipped cream, the decoration on top of the pie became gradually firmer, more the consistency of cake frosting than of cream. I guess if you look at it a certain way, it’s good that it sits there as it was when it came out of the piping bag rather than melting like real cream. I’d still rather have real cream. And the Layered Cranberry-Apple Mold – we couldn’t. We just couldn’t.
Originally posted late February/early March 2010
To be honest, when I was plotting the reboot of my Jell-O blog, I decided to do the Memory Lane thing as a way to save myself some work. It’s actually turning out to be more difficult than I was expecting. In some ways, cooking and then writing shortly afterwards is much easier. The details are fresher, and there aren’t value judgements to be made about whether to embellish when recollection comes up short. Mulling can take at least as much time as whipping up a Jell-O recipe, and I tend to be honest to a fault, which may be why I’ve not been particularly successful in the fiction writing department.
Then there’s the way that my memories have of not quite matching up to my notes. I was surprised to see that I’d given Creamy Blue Cheese Salad three nasties, because I could have sworn I gave it more. Creamy Blue Cheese Salad should be one of the less appetizing Jell-O recipes in the book, containing as it does softened cream cheese, Dream Whip, and bleu cheese (Maytag bleu from Wisconsin, which sounded like it would be suitable for Jell-O) in the usual lemon Jell-O base — not to mention the cayenne pepper seasoning.
My notes indicate that Bryan ate three pieces, and I dubbed it “not blatantly offensive” (the cayenne being barely detectable), adding that it would be better with unsweetened whipped cream in place of the Dream Whip. Apparently, the three-stage flavor (lemon, Dream Whip, bleu cheese) was not as bad as I thought it would be.
My recollection of Creamy Blue Cheese Salad is that the best part was the way it worked with my brain mold, which led me to dub this recipe Fromage de Tête. It was the perfect amount of Jell-O for the mold, plus it was roughly brain-colored. I did a short video, because it was impossible to fully appreciate this dish with just a still photograph.
(If you just watched the video, I can confirm that, yes, Bryan and I are easily amused.)
Of course, the final arbiter of Fromage de Tête was our late, great cat Mr. Fuzzybutt, who was a consumate mooch and cheese lover. He ate a bit of it, but was clearly bothered by the aftertaste.