The jiggler is back. Jell-O and gelatin dishes wiggle and seduce in countless online videos. These dishes are distant relatives to the Jell-O recipes that many of us grew up with and are often goosed with lots of extras. The question is, does a food dish that dances belong on our holiday tables?
Yes, especially when you get creative, and mix in new colors, ingredients, and shapes.
"Retro enthusiasm" aside, I was floored at a recent dinner party when my gluten-free hostess, Bianca Amman, presented a coral-colored, grapefruit and lemon verbena gelatin dessert garnished with small edible flowers from her mini-tropical garden. I agree with her that gelatin recipes are, “…the perfect, unexpected dish (to carry us beyond) pandemic-created garden parties, to meal swaps, themed meals, and potlucks that we can finally embrace again. It’s not just a small foodie movement."
Charles Phoenix, dubbed the “King of Retro” by the LA Times is a big fan and unapologetically kicks it up a dozen notches. How about his conversation starter, a gelatin Christmas tree centerpiece molded inside a traffic cone and embedded with lights!? Not all his wild centerpieces are edible, but they are undeniably fun.
Inspired, I've been collecting molds and playing with Knox gelatin and seaweed-based, agar. Now that I've learned how easy agar is to cut, soak, and create with, my one goal is to win over my son's vegan girlfriend at a family dinner this holiday season.
We’re not alone in cherishing these concoctions. A 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook featured gelatin dishes and by the 14th century, gelatin molds were luxurious elaborate affairs. European royalty tasked servants with the time-consuming task of reducing collagen-filled meat or fish bits into a congealing base. Conquistadors took the process with them into South America and the Philippines. After agar was discovered in Japan, the Han Chinese embraced its cooling properties. My Brazilian daughter-in-law fondly remembers the tricolor gelatins her grandmother made, and a Russian friend serves her traditional, sour-cream-based dessert for special occasions.
Today, molds based on 18th-century designs are available online and are featured by Bombas & Parr in their eye-catching concession, the Jelladrome, inside a popular London food hall. Martha Stewart even shills mid-century gelatin desserts. I’ve scoured thrift stores and adapted ice cube molds into embellishments.
Settlers busy building homes across the continent turned away from gelatin until, in the 1950s, the Jell-O Company patented a quick-gelling powder and marketed it into kitchens countrywide. I still remember the slogan, ‘There’s always room for Jell-O.” If only I could forget my mother’s lime green ring swirled with cottage cheese and chunks of stringy, canned pineapple.
Luckily the memory is being replaced by a recent success—a tasty coconut cream pumpkin panna cotta solidified in an egg-agar base. After chilling and unmolding, it graced my sideboard for hours without melting. Other promising dishes are versions of tomato aspic filled with leaves of cut cucumber and tiny shrimp, and a poached salmon fillet garnished with carrot flowers that seem to float in a clear agar-fish broth reduction. While time-consuming, each dish can be managed by working in steps. I soaked my agar strands, prepped cooked carrot slices, and hard-boiled eggs overnight.
If you're feeling intimidated, remember the "The Ambassador of Americana," Charles Phoenix’s motto: 'This isn't fine food, it's fun food.'
Don't we need that this holiday season?