Kan Albala works a "soupcon of terror" into his recipes. He's unafraid to mix comfort with the worry of—"Am I going to like this?"
When he serves guests, socially bound to taste his concoctions anyway, he plates a bit of intrigue alongside the familiar.
The latest of his 27 books, The Great Gelatin Revival: Savory Aspics, Jiggly Shots, and Outrageous Desserts (University of Illinois Press, 2023) combines historical references with about 200 (out of the 300 tested) recipes so it's more than a recipe book. The longest of his eight chapters is informed by his day job. Albala is the Tully Knowles Endowed Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.
An early Moroccan cookbook from the tenth century detailed instructions for gelatins reduced from fish lips and eel bladders, strained and cooked repeatedly until clear gelatin remained. Early European royalty could afford the long cooking process to reduce bone and marrow. In Victorian times aspics were the height of fashion and famous chefs competed with architectural creations. Fast forward to Ellis Island immigrants who were given gelatin molds as part of their welcome to America and into the mid-twentieth century with cooks turning packaged jello into every dish conceivable.
Albala claims that gelatin was "infantilized" in the mid-century rush to marketable gelatin for children and it worked too well. It’s still served in hospitals and schools. Shots may show up at parties, but serious foodies aren’t interested. However, Albala senses gelatin is poised for popularity again.
He's onto something with the rising enthusiasm for clear and interesting dishes. Complicated kitchen-ing propelled many of us through the pandemic, and I began collecting gelatin molds made of tin and silicone.
Full of boozy adventures, Albala’s book is poised for spring and summer entertaining. Serve ceviche with his Daiquiri Jell-O (ingeniously chilled in a plastic bottle bottom that resembles a flower when plated). A Vodka-Infused Borscht Salad served on a plate of greens is sure to surprise. The cocktails, which fill most of the book, will have you salivating—Whipped Mai Tai, fun silicone molds like palm trees turned into Gin and Tonic Jigglers, and Albala's favorite cocktail, The Boulevardier, heated, mixed proportionately, and chilled.
Albala has noticed that his guests like gelatin dishes with contrasting textures. He features the recipe for Plum Crumble in Bourbon Compari Jello with Honeyed Yogurt on his blog.
I’ve been experimenting with boozy gelatins like a layered Pina Colada Jelly served with cookie straws. There’s room to be creative. In London, a café uses Victorian mold designs for jellies served atop individual cheesecakes.
The Royals may be noticing the buzz. Entrepreneurs, Bumble, and Parr are now Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts after their gelatin art installations gained acclaim. On this side of the pond, Atlas Obscura has crowned Ken Albala the “unofficial ‘Jiggle Daddy’ of Aspic Facebook groups.”
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