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.
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.
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 R.I.P.ing, 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.
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.
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.
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).
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 https://www.etsy.com/shop/ViaDonna.
Okay, my bad. This should have been posted a few weeks ago. I started a draft early, thinking that when the day came I’d be able to hit “publish”, tweet out the URL, and I’d be all set. I never finished the draft, though, because I got seriously derailed by an office move, the holidays, and…
I spent the first couple of weeks of 2017 in London, England in observance of my 50th birthday – because, as I came to realize, staying home in Cambridge just would not have been appropriately grim. The trip was a real mixed bag. The weather was kind of awful, as is traditional in London in January, but not so awful that we were sorry we missed a snowstorm and frigid temperatures back home. We stayed in Whitechapel and enjoyed exploring London’s East End and beyond, seeking out historic sites and good food, but spending the bulk of each day wearing my coat made me feel like an exile. We walked around a lot, enough that I found it tiring, but the flat where we were staying felt close and dreary, and Bryan went out for walks after I was done for the day because he wanted to spend as little time there as possible. The trip ended in a dispute with the owner of the flat over the towels, which had inexplicably discolored in the course of normal use and cost us an extra £50 and any positive feelings we might have had for the place.
We got home late on the night of January 16, and I’ve been catching up on a bunch of things – work, the DVR, the news, sleep – since then. Actually, I haven’t had to spend much time catching up on the news, because I had my iPad with me and access to social media, so I got to hear all about then-PEOTUS’s peccadilloes in the run-up to the inauguration. It was on my birthday that the intelligence reports with “salacious details” hit the news, and far too often that big orange face was on the front pages of the newspapers we saw people reading while riding the tube. This did not exactly fill me with pride as an American.
Inauguration day ended up being sadder than I’d expected, not as bad as the day after the election, but still a rough day. I couldn’t stomach watching the ceremony or our new POTUS’s address, but I read a transcript of the address. It really was dark. Someone should have yelled out “Lighten up, Francis!” at some point, because the whole thing was a total drag for just about everyone except Trump, who was clearly meant to be the hero of the piece. Sad.
Casting about for mitigating humor, I enjoyed the silliness of that obviously staged photo he tweeted with the claim that it showed him writing his inauguration speech. What tipped me off to the sheer bogosity of the thing: nobody gets stuck into a heavy writing job in formal business wear. Someone could at least have told him to take off his jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves. I myself typically write in pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt. Maybe if he’d written the speech in, say, silk pajamas, it wouldn’t have been so grim. (*wink* Yes, I know he didn’t actually write it himself.)
Then I was briefly cheered by attending the Boston Women’s March the day after the inauguration. As we know now, attendance was far larger than organizers had anticipated, and strains on Boston’s public transit system made it challenging to get together with the people we were supposed to be meeting, but that was a good problem to have. I was proud to be part of what turned out to be a truly “yuge” worldwide protest, and heartened and humbled by, and deeply grateful for, all the support we had from outside the U.S.
We’d barely had time to catch our breath when our rickety car headed down the next long, steep slope on the political roller-coaster. It’s been such a long couple of weeks since the inauguration. MIT is one place that I would guess has been disproportionately affected by the immigration ban, and even my colleagues who aren’t from the seven named countries are feeling anxious. I’ve never been so deeply ashamed of the government that purports to represent me. It’s not a good feeling.
So it’s been a little difficult to focus on Jell-O lately. It seems so trivial – but I know that staying focused on current events can only lead to burnout. We all need a break once in a while.
I remember Pastel Candied Fruit Peel relatively well, probably because the candy recipes are more interesting to make. I kind of wish I’d decided to make it again, because it turned out to be time-consuming and I think it would have been soothing to do. The fruit peel came from three large grapefruits (the book specifies that they should be “free from blemishes”) which had to be juiced and boiled for 15 minutes before the pulp and pith were removed.
I cut the peel into strips, boiled them for another 15 minutes, and then cooked them in a Jell-O-and-sugar syrup seasoned with cinnamon and cloves for 50 minutes. (The recipe says to use any flavor of Jell-O. I don’t remember what I used. I think it was probably lemon.) At that point, the syrup had gotten quite thick, and I had to work very quickly, tossing the sticky peels in dry sugar a few at a time. The syrup cooled quickly and formed strings as I worked my way through the peels. It was a pain to work with, but at the same time it was the sort of work that requires focused, almost meditative, concentration, which is so good for the mind and spirit.
This was another one that made the kitchen smell like a Cracker Barrel, not a terrible thing. I guess it kind of tasted like a Cracker Barrel, too, which is always a little strange. There’s something about the flavorings of Jell-O gelatin that makes the flavors of spices taste unbalanced. Still, Bryan and I agreed that it only rated one “nasty”; that is, it was among the least offensive recipes in the book.
So you know, I’m actually caught up on the cooking part of the blog. I’d left myself a free week after my vacation, so now I’m just a little behind on the writing, but I’m shooting to get caught up this weekend. You’d think this writing jazz was hard or something…
This is going to be a quick one, as I am exceedingly busy right now, but I wanted to make sure to get this posted.
Carrot, Celery and Olive Salad. what can one say? To me it seemed a little anticlimactic, but from what I’ve seen on the internet, the idea of carrots in Jell-O sends shivers up many spines. That didn’t bother me as much as the olives. I selected what are now sold as “martini olives” for the visual appeal, but these olives are (conveniently, I suppose) marinated in dry vermouth, the flavor of which is enhanced by lemon Jell-O. The result is…. not good.
The charities are definitely getting their cut for this one. Between both Bryan and me, we only got a few bites out of one mold before giving up.
I look at it this way – 2017 can only get better from here. Let’s try to be hopeful, anyway…
Okay, this one I remember. How can you forget fruitcake in Jell-O mold form? This is the sort of thing for which we all wish someone would invent “brain bleach”.
I know that fruitcake is the butt of a lot of easy jokes, but I honestly dislike the stuff. First of all, those candied fruit bits have such unappetizing texture, color and flavor. Then, I’ve never liked fruit that’s baked into cake or bread (e.g., raisin bagels), although over the years I’ve learned to tolerate raisins in oatmeal cookies only because I don’t ever want to have to turn down cookies.
There’s probably someone out there thinking, “I have this great recipe for fruitcake that will totally change your mind about it.” No way. I might try it, and be polite about it, but I won’t like it. And I can tell you that the last time I tasted a fruitcake was on December 10, when Bryan brought home a bit of a fruitcake that a couple of his co-workers had made from a vintage recipe to celebrate Emily Dickinson’s birthday. It wasn’t bad. I appreciated the effort – but I didn’t like it.
My notes on Winter Fruit Mold are oddly scanty, occupying less than half a page in my little notebook. I remarked that it wasn’t as bad as I expected – although candied fruit is always nasty. (Too true!) The chunky ingredients in Winter Fruit Mold include “candied mixed fruit” (whatever that happens to be), light raisins (yuck), currants, maraschino cherries, and chopped walnuts – everything I’ve always hated about fruitcake, without the benefit of booze-soaked cake.
The other thing I felt was notable was the whole wine issue. The recipe calls for a cup and a half of cherry wine, although 12 ounces of ginger ale flavored with a teaspoon of rum extract may be substituted. (As the kids say – wut?) I couldn’t find cherry wine, so I used a Portuguese red (Castelo do Sulco Reserva), which turned out to be a not-bad drinking wine and probably less nasty than cherry, which I imagine in 1974 would have been a too-sweet wine made by hippies that appealed primarily to kids who’d dropped out of high school to follow the Grateful Dead.
Winter Fruit Mold is also memorable because I brought it to the Lab holiday party. It was definitely a conversation starter, and a few people gamely tried a little of it, but most of it did not get eaten.
Just in time for the holiday season, here’s something, um, different to do with that leftover turkey.
Turkey Soufflé Salad bears an uncanny resemblance to Garden Soufflé Salad, with a slightly different assortment of veggies and the addition of turkey. The base is a lemon Jell-O bavarian with mayonnaise as the fatty ingredient, a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice to (one hopes) cut the sweetness of the Jell-O, and some grated onion and ground pepper for (one hopes) savory flavoring.
As with Garden Soufflé Salad, the recipe says to put the liquid Jell-O mixture in a square baking pan and put that in the freezer for 15-20 minutes until it’s firm to about an inch in from the edges and still soft in the middle. Also as with Garden Soufflé Salad, it didn’t work that way; after about 25 minutes a thin coat of Jell-O was firm and starting to freeze on the surfaces of the pan, while the rest of it remained liquid. I hereby declare this technique “totally bogus”. If there is a next time, I will thicken the Jell-O over a trusty ice-water bath before proceeding to the next step, which is to whip it in a mixer until “fluffy”. Using the technique described in the book yields a still fairly liquid gelatin that would be better described as “foamy”.
As usual, I chopped up a little extra of all of the veggies, including, for the first time, pimientos. I had never encountered them outside of green olives and “loaf” before, and I was surprised to find that I liked the aroma, which made me feel a little better about this recipe.
Really the most interesting thing about making this one was the turkey. We don’t normally eat turkey here at Freak Mountain, and we certainly don’t host big Thanksgiving turkey dinners (the lack of a dining room lets us off the hook), so I had to buy turkey specifically for this recipe. Bryan and I went to the Super Stop’n’Shop the day after Thanksgiving, and I expected that I’d be able to buy a turkey breast (pre-cooked if I was really lucky) to use in Turkey Soufflé Salad. Unfortunately, I found I had two turkey options – a whole frozen turkey, or packages of cooked, deli-sliced turkey. I bought two packages of the latter, which at least had the advantage of being in nice, firm slabs that were easy to cut into cubes. One package yielded a cup and a half of cubed turkey, exactly the amount specified in the recipe.
We ate the second package for lunch in sandwiches with Swiss cheese on rye, with about the same level of enthusiasm meat-eaters have for Thanksgiving leftovers.
Veggies and turkey bits got folded into the foamy, mayonnaise-y gelatin base, poured into 1.25-cup molds, and chilled overnight. They unmolded beautifully into festive-looking servings. The photo doesn’t look so bad, but that’s because it’s not enhanced by Smell-O-Vision. To put it politely, the meat/Jell-O/mayonnaise combination does not smell appetizing.
I think it didn’t taste as bad as it smelled, but it wasn’t good. To be honest, the sandwich-meat turkey was pretty bland (which is a complaint I’ve heard about turkey generally) so mostly it added a weird texture to the salad. Meat and Jell-O together seems to be a bad idea, and I’m left scratching my head over the concept of aspic. I mean, I get the idea of using jelly to preserve meat, but why not just scrape it all off before you serve it? That’s what we always did with canned hams when I was a kid.
As it happened, on the day I was tasting this, we were planning to make a call on our friend JB–, who was sitting shiva for his mother. It’s traditional to bring food to shiva, but I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to bring Turkey Soufflé Salad. Meanwhile, Bryan messaged JB– to see if he needed anything, and JB– responded that they were good for food, but seeing as it was us, he’d expect some Jell-O. Little did he know… I kind of hope JB– didn’t actually eat the Turkey Soufflé Salad, but I do hope he found it amusing. This is not a dish for enjoying, but rather a dish for ridiculing.
Whatever he did with it, I hope he did it quickly, because when I opened the fridge to get milk for my coffee this morning, the leftover Turkey Soufflé Salad was really stankin’ it up. This stuff ripens.
Needless to say, we didn’t eat the rest of it. Donations have been made to Action Against Hunger, Planned Parenthood, and the International Rescue Committee.
(In case anyone’s wondering, I’ve also reinstated my membership in the ACLU in support of my LGBTQ friends and others whose rights might be endangered by the coming administration.)
I tend to be a bit of an old-fashioned purist about “the holiday season”. I grew up in a time when Thanksgiving was its own holiday, and the run-up to Christmas kicked off when Santa appeared at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Even though I lost interest in the parade a long time ago, I still feel like the holiday season has gotten stretched well beyond reasonable bounds (much like U.S. political campaigns), beginning as it does weeks before Halloween.
Well, apparently now that I’m becoming old and irrelevant I need to try not to get all hung up on how things were done “back in the day”. In the spirit of compromise (considering that the display of artificial pre-lighted trees went up in Sears a month ago) I’m firing up my “Holidazed” iTunes playlist and using Thanksgiving week to start on a series of mostly holiday-related Jell-O recipes, starting with Jellied Holiday Nog.
This is one that I do sort of remember, mainly because of the deceptive title. I’m not a big fan of eggnog, but I’ll drink it when it’s around, and when I got to this recipe, it seemed like there was a certain logic to gelling it. I mean, it’s so thick and creamy already, you almost expect it to happen naturally; it’s kind of like a drinkable pudding.
Sure enough, Jellied Holiday Nog starts with Jell-O vanilla pudding mix and lemon Jell-O – quite a lot of both – which doesn’t sound so bad. I used the sugar-free pudding mix; unless you’re dealing with serious health issues, I don’t recommend it, because that (as well as the sugar-free Jell-O gelatins I’ve tried) tends to develop intractable lumps during the cooking process.
The combined Jell-O and pudding get mixed with a rather outlandish quantity of Dream Whip and some flavorings, making a good eight cups of Jellied Holiday Nog, which is a lot. You’re supposed to serve it with Cranberry Orange Sauce, but for some reason I opted to leave my Jellied Holiday Nog naked except for a sprinkling of nutmeg. I was probably put off by the tapioca, which I’ve never liked because the texture makes me gag unless I eat it very carefully, and the payoff for eating tapioca just isn’t worth it.
Traditionally, eggnog doesn’t contain lemon (or any sort of citrus flavor) so it’s not surprising that I would find this too lemony.
The vanilla pudding flavor must have been pretty strong, too, because it reminded me of a dinner buffet at a restaurant in Clovis, New Mexico that I encountered while driving across the U.S. in April 1998. The buffet was traditional New Mexican, offering enchiladas with red sauce and enchiladas with green sauce, and for dessert there was a choice of “strawberry shortcake” (thawed frozen strawberries, individual-sized sponge cakes, and Cool Whip) or “banana pudding” (vanilla pudding with banana slices and Nilla wafers). I don’t know about that Cranberry Orange Sauce, but Jellied Holiday Nog could have used a side of Nilla wafers.
I gave the recipe one-to-two “nasties”, but I have absolutely no desire to make it again. That said, a major point in its favor is that it should be easy to halve in case anyone is curious to try it but doesn’t want to end up with eight cups of the stuff.
Given past failures in sharing Jell-O recipes on the holidays, I have no plans to make a Jell-O recipe for Thanksgiving – although I am mulling over taking the opportunity to make a cheese ball, something I’ve been wanting to try for a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a cheese ball in the wild, but cheese balls were among the images in my early “food porn” – the Hickory Farms holiday catalogs that started arriving in the mail in early November when I was a kid. I was intrigued by the cheese balls, and the petit-fours, tortes, and gift-box assortments, and I would just sit around poring over those catalogs. (I don’t know why we got them, because as far as I know my parents never ordered anything out of them.) I’m getting hungry just thinking about it all.
I should probably get myself a snack now. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this honorable, warm and emotional holiday video: