This week it’s a desultory number four in the New Joy of Jell-O countdown – Ring Around the Fruit Mold. This one comes from the “Centerpiece Desserts” chapter, possibly because it involves a double-batch of Jell-O. Superficially, it appears similar to another Centerpiece Dessert, Banana Nut Ring with Ginger Topping, but unlike Banana Nut Ring, it matched my dark mood this weekend.
After another of those weeks (is there any other kind of week anymore?), I had an unusually social weekend (two parties and an intense bench-press session with my trainer), and coming at the Jell-O, I was exhausted both physically and mentally. Saturday night we went to a work function, which involved a walk about a mile and a half each way in a minor snowstorm because Bryan didn’t feel like driving, and that actually wasn’t too bad, since I got to meet some new people, and the food and wine were okay, but these work things are always stressful because you have to try to be on your best behavior (except the girlfriend of a new employee, who sat at a table and pouted over her phone almost the entire time). Sunday morning we went to a brunch with neighbors at the home of our friends F– and K– who live just a few blocks away, and I had to be careful not to eat to avoid lifting on a full stomach. The topic of “current events” was avoided for the most part, and, surprisingly, there are still lots of other things to talk about, but it always feels like an effort not to start fretting about what’s happening, and we finally caved in with F– shortly before leaving. It sort of helps to know other people are anxious, too, but not that much.
And then there was Ring Around the Fruit Mold, which didn’t help at all. It starts with a double batch of strawberry or raspberry Jell-O (I had a six-ounce package of raspberry, so I used that) and two 15-ounce cans of fruit cocktail (because they didn’t have 30-ounce cans at Target). I made the Jell-O using the juice from the cans for the cold liquid (with water to add up to 1 3/4 cup). The mold chilled overnight, and Sunday afternoon after my workout I made the filling – the drained fruit cocktail, a third of a cup of chopped pecans, a half cup of miniature marshmallows (good thing I had leftovers from last week’s Watergate Salad), and a cup of prepared Dream Whip.
(Speaking of the Watergate Salad, I did bring the leftovers to the lab. I put it in the fridge with a note on it, posted an announcement on Slack that it was there for the tasting – and I ended up being the only one who ate it. I’m starting to feel like I must be either unusually brave or unusually stupid.)
Anyway. If you were ever wondering if it’s really necessary to use a warm-water bath to loosen up the Jell-O before unmolding it, I now have an answer for you: YES. I set the Jell-O in my Tupperware ring mold, and, feeling lazy, decided to dispense with the warm-water bath. See, the cool thing about the Tupperware ring mold is that the center and the outside are two parts that are held together with the famous Tupperware seal, and when you loosen the center piece, the Jell-O falls easily out of the mold when it’s been warmed on the outside. I discovered that if you don’t warm the mold, even if it’s been lubed, some of the Jell-O can stick to the sides. It was the worst unmolding fail I’ve experienced in a long time. The ring came out in pieces, and I had to flip a couple of chunks over and sort of re-form it on the serving platter.
I piled up the filling in the center of the mold, and it immediately started trying to escape at the weakest point of the Jell-O ring. The washed-out colors of the canned fruit were not enhanced or helped in any way either by being mixed with Dream Whip and marshmallows or in contrast to the red Jell-O. The whole thing looked incredibly depressing.
Fittingly, we ended up tasting Ring Around the Fruit Mold after dinner while watching the second disk of the second season of Ash vs. the Evil Dead, the episodes where Ash is in the abandoned asylum having his head messed around by
Bill Baal. As I dished it out, it occurred to me that it was like something that might be served as a special holiday treat on a psychiatric ward. This recipe tasted at least as depressing as it looked. The Jell-O wasn’t so bad, but the filling was intensely disappointing. I expected it to be kind of like ambrosia salad, but it wasn’t. At all. The texture of the fruit cocktail was particularly creepy mixed with Dream Whip and in contrast with the marshmallows and nuts. Maybe more marshmallows would have helped. Probably not.
I may have to make a bonus contribution to Action Against Hunger this week, because I will be very surprised if we eat any more of this one.
Today we’re back to the kids’ stuff, and doubling up to get that much closer to finishing by the end of the year.
Cool Cubes is an Orange Boycott recipe that originally called for orange Jell-O and mandarin orange sections. Luckily, this is a pretty simple recipe that’s easy to make with other flavors and fruit. All it is, really, is Cubed Gelatin layered in a tall glass with fruit, so I went with grape Jell-O and, for contrast, green grapes. In my not so humble opinion, this was probably nicer looking and tastier than the original recipe, which would have been quite boring.
Somehow, there was whipped cream left over from last week’s Fruit Flavor Flakes, so I used it to top our Cool Cubes. To be honest, though, grape Jell-O doesn’t go as well with cream as the berry or peach flavors. It wasn’t bad, just… I mean, you wouldn’t make an ice cream float with grape soda, would you?
I asked Bryan if he liked cubed or flaked gelatin better. He was noncommittal.
Banana-Marshmallow Special was the more kidlike of these two, probably because of the inclusion of miniature marshmallows.
It wasn’t as simple to make as Cool Cubes, which is why, I imagine, I managed to screw it up a little bit. The recipe says to make a single batch of strawberry Jell-O and chill until almost set, to prevent the marshmallows from floating to the top. Well, I was using the trusty cold-water bath method to chill the Jell-O, but I didn’t have quite enough ice, and I was getting a little impatient, so I added the banana slices and marshmallows when the Jell-O was thick, but not quite almost set. I added extra marshmallows and banana slices, so there wasn’t so much a problem with solid ingredients floating to the surface, but the powdered sugar coating on the marshmallows came off in the viscous Jell-O and formed a sort of colloidal suspension in the gelatin, which is why the Jell-O part looks a bit cloudy. I wonder if a kid would do better, but I rather doubt it.
The Jell-O with marshmallows and bananas in it gets put in glasses, dishes or paper cups to set. There’s another Junior Cooks recipe coming up that says to put the Jell-O in paper cups, and that got me to thinking that maybe I could use Dixie riddle cups for these recipes. That just goes to show how far away from any kid-centered orbit I am, because it turns out that Dixie riddle cups went away a long time ago, and failed to stick around past a short-lived revival twenty years ago. The designs on modern paper cups just don’t appeal to me, so instead I got some reusable plastic cup containers, which will make it easier for me to bring the leftovers to work for lunch.
I added some mini-marshmallow to the top of the Jell-O in the cups – I don’t know why, because it’s not like this wasn’t sweet enough already. It’s what kid-me would have done, for sure.
We ate Cool Cubes and Banana-Marshmallow Special in one sitting. Unsurprisingly, Bryan preferred the Banana-Marshmallow Special, mainly because of the marshmallows. I think I preferred the Cool Cubes, though, and this was more because of the bananas. I don’t love bananas in Jell-O. It’s mainly a texture thing. Although I like bananas, there’s something a little creepy about them. They make me think about bugs, especially the more ripe they are. The bananas I used in this recipe were ones I had bought at the supermarket the same morning I made the Jell-O, so it’s not like they were very ripe, but they were a weird texture in a dish that was, let’s be honest, all weird textures, very firm Jell-O and marshmallows that had softened a bit from contact with the thick-but-not-set gelatin.
Still, there was something about Banana-Marshmallow Special that really said “1970s” to me. I think kid-me would have really liked it. 50-year-old me wasn’t so keen on the way the sugar had coated my mouth when I was done eating it. I’m starting to understand why people might be keen to recapture their lost youth.
Author’s Note: Woo! So my trainer bailed on me at the last possible moment – after I’d taken a double dose of C4 preworkout. Looks like I’m finishing this post á la Jack Kerouac, on speed and listening to jazz…
“Every eighteen months the storage capacity of a marshmallow doubles. I believe that’s called S’More’s Law.” — Stephen Colbert
I was inspired to tackle this one when I saw Stephen Colbert interview Walter Mischel about his book, The Marshmallow Test, which describes a test devised in the 1960s to measure children’s self-control and ability to delay gratification. Given that I grew up in a large family in which resources were stretched thin, “delayed” is the only kind of gratification I know (I haven’t even ordered a new iPhone yet), but what really caught my attention were the marshmallows that Professor Mischel brought on the show to test Colbert’s self-control. He said they were from Paris, and they were pink and cube-shaped and probably made in a kitchen by a confiseur, not extruded in a factory like the bowl of Jet-Puffed that Colbert had handy. I thought that was a lovely and classy gesture on Mischel’s part, and it just seemed like the Universe was telling me to make Fruit Flavor Marshmallows.
Jumping ahead a bit, I was so pleased with how this worked out that I’m not going to describe at length the process of making them; I’m just going to post the recipe and recommend that you go for it:
- 1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O Gelatin, any flavor
- 1/2 cup boiling water
- 3/4 cup sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
Dissolve gelatin in boiling water in a saucepan over very low heat. Add sugar, cook and stir just until sugar is dissolved. (Do not boil.) Blend in corn syrup. Chill until slightly thickened. Beat at highest speed of electric mixer until mixture is thickened and will stand in soft peaks — about 8 to 10 minutes. Pour into an 8-inch square pan which has been lined on sides and bottom with waxed paper and the paper greased with butter or margarine. Chill overnight.
Turn mixture out onto a board heavily dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Carefully peel off waxed paper and dust surfaces heavily with sugar. Cut into 1-inch squares or into shapes, using small cookie cutters dipped in sugar. Roll cut edges in sugar. Store tightly covered. Makes about 5 dozen confections.
I have just a few tips to add to this. By “electric mixer” they mean a stand mixer; it really does take a while to beat this into the right consistency, and you don’t want to be standing over this for ten minutes holding up your Mixmaster Junior. At least, I don’t. For beating, use the whisk attachment on your mixer. It will be less messy at the outset and get you the desired results. Five dozen seems optimistic, unless you cut them very small, but that’s not a terrible idea. These are tasty, but very sweet.
I had never had non-store-bought marshmallows before, and it was interesting to find that these were much softer in consistency, so soft that it’s a little surprising I was able to cut them easily, and they’ve held their rough cube shapes. I used raspberry-flavored Jell-O, so my marshmallows were pink like Professor Mischel’s, albeit stickier.
Since I had nothing in my memory to which to compare them, I decided that I would also try to make “real” marshmallows from scratch out of a regular recipe book. At Bryan’s suggestion, I used the recipe from Who Wants Candy? by Jane Sharrock. Fundamentally it was quite similar to the Jell-O version, but this was proper candy-making, the dangerous kind. It involved dissolving two cups of sugar and three quarters of a cup of corn syrup in a half-cup of boiling water (it really is astonishing how much sugar you can dissolve in water if it’s hot enough) and then cooking the molten sweetness to a temperature of (as the recipe instructed) 236°F. I haven’t done much candy-making, but I knew that this sort of hot molten sugar is commonly known in chef circles as “napalm” and must be handled carefully, so I was walking a fine line between confidence and caution. We didn’t have a candy thermometer when I made this, so I used a lab thermometer that Bryan had bought thinking it would be useful for general cooking purposes. I don’t recommend it for this purpose, however. I poked the probe into the sugar syrup occasionally, but as the temperature got into the high two-twenties, I decided that I should keep the probe in there and stand over it as the temperature went up the last few degrees. That was stupid. Get a damn candy thermometer, people! (That’s what we did! Can’t wait to try it!)
Once the syrup was cooked to the “soft ball stage”, I took it off the heat and added water-soaked unflavored gelatin to it. Then it was back to the mixer.
A couple of things about the mixer, which is a Kitchen-Aid we got as a gift from friends the first time we got married almost twenty-two years ago. One, it’s a smaller model and, unbeknownst to me, it had been taking a beating since Bryan started on a bread-making kick a few years ago, so the bowls weren’t screwing onto the base securely anymore, and the motor housing seemed to be slowly coming unseated and juddered in a worrying way as I set the speed higher*. Two, after the Jell-O marshmallows I was unsure that using the whisk attachment was the correct way to go, as both recipes just said to “beat” the molten sugar/gelatin mixture, so I decided to use the regular mixing attachment for the plain marshmallows. That was a mistake. Once I got the speed up past medium, the mixer started flinging drops of napalm around that end of the kitchen counter, and we had to approach it carefully, shut it off, and switch attachments. It went much more smoothly with the whisk.
The mixture was supposed to get fluffy and “hold its shape”. It did increase in volume quite a bit, until it looked and tasted like a slightly thinner version of Marshmallow Fluff, but it didn’t seem to want to get stiffer than that. At that point, I decided all I could do was pour it in the pan and hope for the best.
Rather than buttered wax paper, the recipe said to line a 13″ x 9″ pan with confectioner’s sugar, fully covering the bottom of the pan and running powdered sugar up the sides as far as possible with the back of a spoon. It sort of worked, a bit like when you line a springform pan with a crumb crust for cheesecake, but I was dubious. The powdered sugar stayed put while I added the marshmallow creme, and that made me feel a little better. The recipe said it just needed to sit for twenty minutes or so before cutting. Again, I was dubious, so I popped it into the fridge for luck and set about washing the dishes. Then I gave it several more minutes.
At first, trying to cut it made no sense. Per the recipe, I tried doing it with a knife dipped in hot water, but it seemed like the marshmallow “healed” as soon as I was done cutting. It felt stiffer to the touch, though, so I shifted technique a little, and started dipping the knife in powdered sugar rather than hot water. That worked better. I had to use a cookie spatula to lift the marshmallows out of the pan because they stuck to the pan and I couldn’t turn them out. They were very soft, but seemed to be holding their shape even as I rolled them in powdered sugar. I put them in a plastic container, not touching, and each layer separated by wax paper just in case.
I will say that they tasted good, with more of a real vanilla flavor than you get in your Jet-Puffed or Sta-Puft or whatever your favorite supermarket brand is. I could totally see the appeal of making these in different, non-Jell-O flavors. The only thing is, they never really stiffened up. In fact, there was still so much moisture in them that they absorbed most of the powdered sugar coating overnight and were sticky when I brought them out in the Lab after lunch. I had brought both sets of marshmallows into the Lab to see if I could get some fresh palates to sample them, but I had very few takers, and they seemed more impressed with the idea of homemade marshmallows than with the actual product.
I have a couple of ideas for what didn’t quite work with the vanilla marshmallows. One is that there might not have been quite enough unflavored gelatin. The recipe called for two tablespoons of gelatin, but a packet of Knox gelatin, which is what I had on hand, is a little less than one tablespoon, so two packets comes up a few milligrams short. Still, the Knox site says to consider a packet to be a tablespoon, so maybe that wasn’t the issue. The more likely culprit is the recipe’s instruction to cook the sugar to the soft ball stage. Our new candy thermometer, and at least one other marshmallow recipe, say to cook the sugar to the hard ball stage, 260°F. I’ll have to try that next time.
So now we have a lot of marshmallows on hand. The raspberry ones are really good in hot cocoa, and I expect at least some of Jell-O’s other fruit flavors would as well. As for the plain marshmallows, Bryan discovered that they’re good for making “fluffernutters”. No waste this time. I have to say that while there is a good chance I’ll try making marshmallows from scratch again, the Jell-O version is a good, less complicated alternative. Finally!
* Bryan has ordered us a new mixer, a heavier-duty Kenwood that has fancy attachments and possibly comes with a splash guard, which will make me feel better about future candy-making endeavors. We’re very grateful to the friends who gave us that old Kitchen-Aid that gave us over two decades of faithful service.