107 Cookbooks Rotating Header Image

Jell-O

The New Joys of Jell-O: Joy Is Not the Word I Would Use

ring around the fruit mold

RingAroundJellO2I have never been a fan of Jell-O. I find the texture off-putting, the taste chemical-y and harsh, and the very principle simply wrong. This is probably one reason that I own three Jell-O cookbooks; in fact, it was a Jell-O cookbook that started me down the path to Recipes of the Damned, and eventually to this blog.

JelloFruitCocktailThe New Joys of Jell-O is not that cookbook. The New Joys of Jell-O is a slim hardcover published in 1973 and resplendent with early 1970s glory; lurid color photos display outmoded hairstyles, clothing and Jell-O dishes. The publisher is clearly trying to pull Jell-O out of a 1960s cultural tar pit by showing that hip, groovy people who are in touch with today’s modern world will show up on your doorstep carrying fruit encased in translucent goo.

JellOPowderThe last time I made a Jell-O recipe I played it safe, adding melon balls to lime Jell-O and leaving it at that. This time I decided that I really had to go big. Big and bad, as it happened. So I scanned the recipes for something that would encapsulate all the worst aspects of Jell-O cookery — no small selection of choices — and settled on ring around the fruit mold.

JellOInBundtPan2I began by making the Jell-O itself. Following the recipe’s instructions, I drained the liquid from a 30-ounce can of fruit cocktail, and added water to it to make 1 1/2 cups. I set this aside, possibly not as far as I should have. I dissolved a 6-ounce packet of strawberry Jell-O in 2 cups of boiling water, stirred in the fruit cocktail solution, and poured the liquid into a Bundt pan. This represented my first real sign that things weren’t going to go quite as hoped. (Well, first real sign after the realization that I was making Jell-O in the first place.) I don’t own any actual Jell-O molds, and I didn’t have anything at all ring-shaped other than my standard Bundt pan, and it’s about twice the size I needed. I worried a little about whether the Jell-O would unmold cleanly, then decided there wasn’t anything I could do about it at this point, and put the pan in the fridge to chill overnight.

DicingMarshmallowsThe next step was to assemble the fruit component. The recipe called for 1 cup of prepared Dream Whip, 1/3 cup of chopped nuts, 1/2 cup miniature marshmallows, and the fruit from that can of fruit cocktail. You can see already this isn’t going anywhere good. I’ll reassure you on one point, though: Dream Whip is (or perhaps was) the mix-it-yourself equivalent of Cool Whip. (It is not salad dressing; that’s Miracle Whip. Breathe a sigh of relief.) I don’t know if Dream Whip is available for sale today, but it certainly can’t be found in my neighborhood grocery store, so I substituted Cool Whip.

JellOFillingIngredsThe marshmallows were also a problem, because they didn’t have miniatures at FoodTown. I couldn’t be sure from the shelves if they were sold out or if they just weren’t available. I considered trying the other grocery stores in the area, but I decided against that. It’s been insanely hot here, and I didn’t feel like trooping from store to store. I also wasn’t confident that I’d find them anywhere else; after all, who runs out of or doesn’t stock miniature marshmallows? It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d gone store to store only to discover that nobody carries something that I had just assumed everybody would have in stock. And I had a party to prepare for; I didn’t really want to spend the time, especially if it wasn’t going to come to anything.

JellOFillingSo I bought full-size marshmallows and decided to chop them into bits. This was tricky, because marshmallows are gummy and sticky inside and really want to stick to your knife. I dusted my knife blade with powered sugar and dipped the exposed surfaces in powdered sugar as I went along, and while this didn’t completely solve the stickiness problem, it reduced it enough that I could accumulate half a cup of marshmallow bits without completely losing it.

JellOJelledMy sourcing problems addressed, I mixed together the Cool Whip, fruit cocktail bits, marshmallows and chopped walnuts. The mixture was pale and lumpy and distinctly unencouraging. I set it aside and prepared to unmold my Jell-O. I turned it onto a plate and it came out in once piece–a misshapen piece that was liquidy at the edges. I think I may have held the mold in warm water a little too long; I was afraid I’d mixed in too much liquid (package directions say no) or used boiling water when I should not have (package directions say boiling water, no problem there) or failed to let it chill long enough. But it didn’t continue to bleed liquid, so I think I just warmed the pan too much. Certainly once I’d turned it out into a cockeyed triangle, it didn’t remain malleable enough for me to shape it back into a ring.

JellOUnmolded2I began to spoon the fruit cocktail mixture into the center. There was a lot of it. Frankly, I think there was too much of it. For the amount of fruit cocktail mixture I had I think I needed twice the Jell-O. (It had occurred to me the night before, when I saw that the Bundt pan was only half full, that I might go get more Jell-O and make a double quantity. But then it occurred to me that I would have that much more Jell-O left over, because I had no illusions that the party guests were going to flock to the Jell-O mold and clamor to take some home with them. So I didn’t.) I spooned in as much as I felt I could reasonably keep on the plate without in fact hiding the Jell-O, and carried the dish out to the party buffet.

RingAroundJellO3Quite a bit later, after we’d enjoyed salad and dips and pickles and cake and whiskey (more on that in another post), Scott decided it was time to find out how the Jell-O was. He served himself a plate with even shares of Jell-O and fruit cocktail mixture, took a bite, and furrowed his brows. “You have to eat some of this,” he said, in a tone that implied “It’s your fault we even have this here.” He served some out for me before I could protest, though I agreed that it was my fault and it was only fair that I tried it for myself.

JellODishedThe Jell-O was the best part of it. This is not a compliment. The combination of Cool Whip and fruit cocktail and marshmallows was unpleasant, even more than I had expected. (The nuts did nothing to improve or degrade it, really.) The flavors and textures were completely discordant. There was the slipperiness and chemical tang of Jell-O, the sticky softness of marshmallow, and the mushy so-very-not-fresh-fruit sensation of the fruit cocktail pieces. I finished the serving because I kept thinking one of these spoonfuls was bound to improve, but they never did.

The apartment was really warm, but the Jell-O held up surprisingly well, and didn’t start to melt off the plate for some hours. Once it did, I took it out to the kitchen and disposed of it.

Verdict: Disgusting. Kids, don’t try this at home.

What Mrs. Dewey Did With the New Jell-O: I Quiver in Fear

cool melon salad

What Mrs. Dewey Did With the New Jell-O is a pamphlet from 1933. It’s quite the marvel. It starts with a hilarious little story about Mrs. Dewey discovering the new Jell-O packages in her grocery delivery, and becoming positively giddy about the possibilities of desserts, salads and loaves. Apparently the big new change was that instead of mixing the powdered Jell-O with boiling water, you could mix it with warm water and thus require less time to chill. The new formula must not have worked out, because the box I bought last week instructed me to dissolve the powder in boiling water, then add cold water.

Of course I ate Jell-O when I was growing up. It was Indiana in the 1970s. I think Jell-O may have been required by state law, along with Libbyland frozen dinners, Hi-C grape drink, and Space Food Sticks. My mother was a really good cook, but you still must work with the products that dominate your culture. So yes, I ate Jell-O, though at least Mom never mixed in vegetables or anything scary like that. I’m not sure she bothered with fruit, or with molding it into fancy shapes. I left the stuff behind pretty quickly once I got to college and began to learn to really cook for myself. And during college I got my hands on a 1960s Jell-O cookbook that started me on the long and winding road to making fun of bad recipes. I think I actually ate Jell-O twice in the years since my adolescence, once after an operation and once in the form of Jell-O shots (which were rather horrible).

So I was really kind of afraid when I had to make my first Jell-O recipe for this project. With three Jell-O cookbooks in the mix I felt I could ease myself into the horror of Jell-O; no suspended cauliflower or lunchmeat for my first effort. I opted for a simple Jell-O and fruit combination, honeydew melon balls in lime Jell-O.

This meant I had to scoop out melon balls, and found that my melon baller was larger than was probably ideal for this recipe. As kitchen disasters go, this is of course right up there with “They only had the second-best caviar” and “Oops, too much chocolate,” but it is one reason that the melon balls look a little weird in the final Jell-O mold. Another issue was that I don’t really have Jell-O molds to speak of, nothing that could give a particularly interesting shape to the dessert; I ended up using small metal bowls to produce freakish little green domes. Most of the melon balls were not perfectly spherical, so in the photo you can see that they kind of look like marshmallows, which is especially weird.

I was least prepared for the smell of the lime Jell-O powder. It was kind of acrid and overpowering and not quite right, and I began to have serious concerns about whether we could actually eat the finished product. But either the smell eased up or I became inured to it, and by the time the Jell-O was chilled and ready to eat it wasn’t making quite the same impression. The Jell-O unmolded easily; it wasn’t as easy to neatly slice the mold into two servings, since the texture of the Jell-O and the texture of the melon were very different. That difference plus the overly large melon balls made it tricky to eat both elements together as well; we would pretty much spoon up either Jell-O or melon.

And the taste? The melon tasted good. The Jell-O…was OK. It had a decent texture — not rubbery like bad, too-old Jell-O can get. The lime flavor was rather artificial, but not actually bad.

Verdict: Meh. It worked, it was edible, it was less scary than feared. I would say I don’t plan to make it again, but there are two more Jell-O cookbooks in the schedule, and I may well have to bring myself to pick a recipe with vegetables. Be very afraid.