I wasn’t planning to do a Halloween Jell-O project, but a week before the holiday, my friend K– tagged me in a Facebook post with a link to a video about making Jell-O “worms in dirt”:
It looked feasible, and like something that wouldn’t take a tremendous amount of time (the video is deceptively short) so I decided to attempt it over the weekend.
I got off to a bad start, believe it or not, trying to find drinking straws. Bryan and I went to Target first, because we had some other shopping to do and figured we could do it most efficiently there. I already had the Jell-O, unflavored gelatin, cream, and food coloring, so I only needed to get straws and Oreos for this recipe. Oreos were not a problem, but our local Target doesn’t appear to carry drinking straws. Well, no big deal, the Star Market is on the way home from Target, so we stopped there. We found straws, but not the standard straws you’d use to drink a root beer float or an egg cream. No, the only straws at the Star were meant for frozen drinks at parties, brightly colored and narrow. We couldn’t chase all over town for straws because at some point we had a Halloween party to get ready for, so we got a few boxes of the least narrow straws they had and returned to Freak Mountain.
Making the gelatin that was to become worms was easy, just a double batch of strawberry Jell-O with a packet of Knox unflavored gelatin, mixed with 3/4 cup heavy cream tinted with 15 drops of green food coloring. One thing I will say, the color was perfect – very wormlike.
The problem with this recipe is the mechanics of it. I started out splitting 100 straws between two drinking glasses, which looked like a reasonable setup. I bundled up the straws with twist ties, and started pouring the still-liquid gelatin into the first bundle. Perhaps not surprisingly to someone more science-minded than I am, the gelatin ran right out of the bottoms of the straws and began filling up the glass. As the gelatin got close to the top of the glass, I realized that the gelatin would overflow the glass well before the straws got anywhere near full.
I searched my kitchen for a taller vessel, and settled on an aluminum retro-style pitcher. It’s about as tall as the straws, but much wider than all 100 straws bundled together. At least the gelatin wouldn’t overflow it.
Now I had a new problem – the Jell-O was starting to set. By the time I was ready to pour it over the bundle of straws in the pitcher, it was becoming viscous and rather than flowing into the straws it was sliding over the top and down the sides of the bundle. I found myself patting thick gelatin into the tops of the straws, hoping it would flow down into them and stay there. I even scooped up handfuls of gelatin from the pitcher to pat into the tops of the straws. It was not pleasant. Finally, I decided I’d done all I could and put the pitcher in the fridge.
If, at that point, I thought the worst was over, I was wrong.
More than 24 hours later, I removed the pitcher from the refrigerator. The Jell-O had set up very firm, as it was supposed to. So firm that I couldn’t pull the straws out of the pool of gelatin that was surrounding them. I used a knife, and then a spoon, to remove as much of that gelatin as I could, throwing at least a regular-batch quantity of gelatin into the kitchen sink. After a while, I’d cleared out enough that I could start pulling out straws.
Another problem was that the jelly-coated straws were slippery and hard to grip. As I started extruding jelly from the straws, I found that it was difficult and frustrating to do it with just my hands. I hit upon the solution of holding the tops of the straws in my teeth, which worked pretty well except for a bit of drooling. It took me about 45 minutes to extrude the Jell-O that was in the straws, and this is what I ended up with:
Let’s review. I made 3 3/4 cups of Jell-O, and the photo above shows the quantity of not-very-wormlike worms I got out of it, maybe a half-cup altogether. The level of Jell-O in the straws was lower than the level of the Jell-O surrounding the straws in the pitcher. The short worms I got out of the straws weren’t even smooth and nice like the ones in the video. That half-cup of set Jell-O looked more like ground beef than worms.
I’m guessing that I needed a container as tall as the straws and just wide enough to hold all 100 of them in a tight bundle. Even then, I think the volume of that arrangement would have been less than the volume of Jell-O I’d prepared. Wider straws would almost certainly have been better. I should have spent more time finding better straws, calculated the volume I’d need a container to be, and then gone looking for a container with just the proper proportions to get this to come out right. Really. Who has time for that?
I decided that this was perhaps the stupidest Jell-O project I’ve done so far, giving even Frosted Fresh Grapes a run for its money. When I was making it, it occurred to me that this is a recipe that has “stay-at-home mom” written all over it, because who else would take the time to fool around one-by-one with 100+ drinking straws. I now suspect that this recipe is a hoax put out on the internet to make stay-at-home moms feel inadequate. Somebody should be ashamed of themselves.
But, as Bryan pointed out, whatever happened we still had that package of Oreos…
Well, so much for getting better about not procrastinating…
Something weird happened in the making of the Bleeding Heart – suddenly it seemed to take on a deeper, less light-hearted meaning than I’d intended. While all of this was underway, a friend was preparing to leave town to be with her family and her gravely ill mother. (Her mother passed away last weekend.) Another friend is herself gravely ill. Meanwhile, somewhat more removed but still sad were a pair of deaths that touched two communities of which I’m a part, MIT and WBUR (our local public radio station, of which I am a “listener/member”). One, of course, was Tom Magliozzi of “Car Talk” fame, MIT class of 1958 and a native of Nerdvana. The other was Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, wife of Tom Ashbrook (the host of WBUR’s “On Point” program, who had shortly before announced that he was taking a leave of absence to care for his sick wife) and also an associate dean of graduate education at MIT.
Mind you, I’m probably less afraid of death than is considered normal in U.S. American culture. However, I really hate the feeling of inadequacy in the face of other people’s grief. It feels like whatever you say or do won’t be enough, or won’t be right, so you get all self-conscious (and then start down a guilt-spiral because it’s not supposed to be about you), and you try to be extra careful but wind up saying something bone-headed* anyway. Or maybe that’s just me. But I doubt it.
Anyhow, in some goofy way, that Jell-O heart seemed to symbolize the sadness I’ve been feeling because people I care about are sad. That just made it more difficult to write about, not to mention editing the video, which does not show that angle at all.
So, the Bleeding Heart. As I mention in the video, this was essentially a bavarian, a cream dessert thickened with gelatin. Of course, in the context of The New Joys of Jell-O, the cream is often Cool Whip, and that’s what I used here.
For me, by now this is a rather simple process of preparing and thickening a batch of Jell-O (raspberry this time) over an ice-water bath, and then folding in the Cool Whip. Conventional wisdom states that red Jell-O and Cool Whip make a good color for flesh or internal organs, but to my eye the combination results in a pink that’s reminiscent of an inflatable sex doll. Anyone who’s ever taken a high school biology class or peered into the meat case at the butcher’s section of a grocery store knows that internal organs have more of a maroon or purple cast to them, so I added a bit of blue and green food coloring to my bavarian cream to at least tone down the pink.
The bleeding part was supposed to be in the form of a raspberry sauce that I made by straining (to get the seeds out) about a cup and a half of red raspberries and simmering them with enough sugar to take the edge off of their tartness, which turned out of be quite a bit of sugar. My plan had been to freeze the sauce, place it in the middle of the bavarian cream, and let the sauce melt in the fridge as the Jell-O got firm (per Chef Heston’s technique with his absinthe jellies), so that the heart would “bleed” when it was cut. Well, I say “sauce”, but what I ended up with was more of a raspberry jam. It did turn out to be a pretty nice “blood” color, and I won’t lie, it was delicious, but it was more like congealed blood. Also, it didn’t freeze, which was something I did not expect.
The anatomically-correct heart mold I used includes some veiny details, and I had ambitions of filling them in with a darker, non-creamy Jell-O, like the vein details I added to my Hand of Glory. However, unlike the hand mold, the heart mold has steeply sloping sides and is made of a smooth plastic that’s particularly slick when lubed up with nonstick spray, so the end result was a sort of diseased-looking heart.
Another thing that didn’t go quite right was that I misjudged the structural integrity of the bavarian cream in relation to the density of the raspberry component. In other words, the raspberry part was just a little too heavy for the bavarian part, and soon after the unmolding the heart developed cracks. Along with the random-ish splotches of dark Jell-O on the surface of the heart, the effect was a bit distressing, especially considering that the host of the Halloween party at which this debuted has been having real issues with the health of his own real heart. On the other hand, “gross” and “Halloween” go together like peanut butter and chocolate, so despite the things that didn’t go quite right, the Bleeding Heart was suitable for the occasion.
Now, I need to get my tuchis in gear and start making more Jell-Os. I have to confess, I ended up with a lot of leftover Halloween candy (the current crop of students showed what I consider to be an abnormal degree of restraint in the face of the treat-filled plastic pumpkin on my desk) that Bryan and I have, shamefully, been working on, so I haven’t really been up for doing anything else, dessert-wise. I may have to continue to draw on Reposts and Memory Lane for another week or two, but I still think my next “live” Jell-O will be one of the scary ones, so stay tuned!
* It happens to the best of us. One instance that really stands out in my mind is from the funeral of my paternal grandmother in 1990. The priest who was conducting the funeral Mass knew the family, and perhaps it was that familiarity that led him, in the course of the eulogy, to delve into slightly stale popular culture: “On the television show ‘Twin Peaks’, there’s a character called the Log Lady. Kay [my grandmother] should be called the Rock Lady, because her faith was as solid as a rock.” That was weird on a number of levels, not least because my grandparents weren’t big TV watchers and almost certainly would not have watched, let alone liked, “Twin Peaks”. I’m no expert, but I suspect that such WTF moments are best avoided on these occasions.
Okay, first of all, in case anyone was worried, I have not fallen down a deep well or been kidnapped by aliens or contracted ebola (although hearing all the hoopla about ebola is making me wish I would fall down a deep well or be kidnapped by aliens). I am simply being old Slacky McSlacker, your friend with such a huge perfectionist streak that she can’t get anything done.
I know that I need to do another “scary” Jell-O recipe, and October would have been a perfect time to do it. So, oh damn. But no joke, it’s not easy to get psyched to do them. Consider this: anchovies in Jell-O. I’m not making that up.
But I am still here, still with Jell-O on the brain, and, in fact, in the midst of another “off-script” Jell-O project for Halloween, which will be unveiled at the party tonight and posted this weekend. I’m also the proud owner of a new camcorder, and I’m hoping to enhance NNoJP with more moving pictures in the future so that you can not only read about my projects but also watch them wiggle and see them jiggle.
Regarding serendipity: As perfectionists are wont to do, rather than writing I’ve been mentally beating up on myself for not writing. Then a little while ago I ran across this post over at Cranky Fitness. (Crabby is an excellent lady and I really should spend more time at her blog.) We writers are all experts at procrastination, and boy, do we hate ourselves for it.
Anyway, happy Halloween, bugbears and ghouls! (Did I really say that? Why yes, yes I did. Must stop eating candy….)
Originally posted November 1, 2009
The Hand of Glory is the dried and pickled hand of a man who has been hanged, often specified as being the left (Latin: sinister) hand, or, if the man were hanged for murder, the hand that “did the deed.”
According to old European beliefs, a candle made of the fat from a malefactor who died on the gallows, lighted, and placed (as if in a candlestick) in the Hand of Glory, which comes from the same man as the fat in the candle; this would have rendered motionless all persons to whom it was presented.
— from the Wikipedia entry for Hand of Glory
Ah, October, probably my favorite month of the year. The foliage is colorful, the days are getting shorter but are not yet too short, the air is becoming crisp enough that I can start pulling out all the sweaters I’m finally starting to miss after schvitzing all summer, and it’s capped off by a great holiday, Halloween. I love Halloween because it’s all about confronting our fears (of death, primarily) by making fun of them. There are no heavy religious overtones to the holiday, relatively little family pressure, and no gift-giving obligations. It’s a chance to indulge the inner drama geek I barely realized I had until a few years ago, the one time of year when I can justify spending more than a utilitarian amount of time on hair, makeup and clothes.
Hand of Glory is not in The New Joys of Jell-O, but it’s the coolest thing I’ve done with Jell-O to date. During the original Project, my friend K–* loaned me her hand-shaped gelatin mold and asked me to use it to make a Jell-O for the Halloween party that she and her husband F– (a researcher at the Lab) were giving, as they do every year, for Lab folk and other friends. At that point, I had already done enough fruit-suspended-in-Jell-O that I was grateful for the opportunity to get a little creative with it.
There are a few different body-part molds out there — the hand, the heart, and the ever-popular brain mold. A pretty common way to use them is to combine Jell-O with a creamy substance to create a flesh-like or just plain creepy color. For instance, I’ve been advised that combining red Jell-O and Cool Whip gives a reasonably authentic internal-organ appearance to a heart mold.
I wanted to take it further than that.
I wanted to make a corpse hand, and I wanted it to have some detail, so first I needed to make some dark blue veins. I started with half of a packet of berry blue Jell-O dissolved in a half cup of boiling water, to which I added four drops of blue food coloring, one drop of red, and one drop of green, and then a little ice to cool/thicken it. My notes indicate that I didn’t think the color was dark enough, nor the gelatin thick enough, but piping this into the bottom of the lubed hand mold, following the veins on the back of my own left hand as a pattern, actually worked out pretty well. For good measure, I also added dark-blue fingernails**.
Next was the flesh of the hand. I didn’t mean for this to look like the hand of a fresh corpse, so pink was right out. I added the other half of the packet of berry blue to a three-ounce package of peach Jell-O, using the usual amount of water. I cooled this until it was thickened enough to mix in six or seven ounces of Cool Whip that I’d flavored with a little almond extract, and added a drop of green food coloring. This pleased me greatly.
I thought that the “mitt” part on which the hand sits should suggest congealed blood, so I did up a batch of raspberry Jell-O with frozen berries. I can’t remember whether it was just raspberries or a mix of raspberries and strawberries (kind of looks like a mix to me), but either way it looked awesome and just filled the mold.
Having learned from my mistakes on Ginger Peach Dessert, I took more care this time and my Hand of Glory came out of the mold as well as I could have hoped.
It looked a little plain in that baking pan, though. As they say, the Devil is in the details, and this being Halloween, more details were definitely called for. I added the dirt of the grave (Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, ground up in the food processor with a little melted butter, aka crumb crust) and some gummy worms to complete my little culinary tableau. As I said, the coolest thing to date.
The Jell-O Hand of Glory was a hit at the Halloween party, mainly as a table decoration, although people ate the gummy worms and the crumb crust “dirt”. Of course, Bryan and I sampled the Hand part, and actually it was pretty good. The flavors blended together well, and I thought it was fun to eat, though clearly I am less squeamish than a lot of people.
I should mention, too, that my costume turned out surpassingly well. I dressed as a 1950s housewife, and I got a lot of double-takes because people genuinely didn’t recognize me at first. (The blonde wig was a particularly good disguise back when I was 100% brunette.) Several people asked if I was supposed to be Betty from “Mad Men”, but I hadn’t started watching the show then. I just loved the idea of turning up as June Cleaver with a corpse hand in a baking pan. That’s how I roll.
* K– isn’t a huge Jell-O aficianado, but she is from Minneapolis. ‘Nuff said.
** Legend has it that fingernails continue to grow after you die. Not true. It’s the skin receding that gives the illusion of fingernails growing on a corpse. I just thought you’d like to know that.