The quiver, revisited
Gelatin much more than brightly colored kids' dessert

March 24, 2004

A wise philosopher of science, Abraham Kaplan, once wrote about the tendency of scientists to be taken with a particular methodology and to apply it to every problem in sight, appropriate or not. He called this the Law of the Hammer: Give a small boy a hammer and he will suddenly discover that everything he sees requires pounding.

I myself have been living this week with a culinary instance of that law. Call it the Law of Gelatin.

Gelatin will be most familiar to people as a central ingredient in Jell-O, that sweet powdery substance that comes in a box and is used to make brightly colored, Lifesaver-flavored fruit desserts and molded salads that wiggle on the plate and make children laugh.

I am not talking here about that kind of gelatin. I am talking about the unvarnished version, the generic unflavored gelatin (or agar-agar if you prefer not to eat animal products) that you can use to make your own desserts and salads out of any juice or beverage that catches your eye.

Gelatin has been on my mind because I have been rereading one of my all-time favorite food writers, the late Laurie Colwin, who once wrote a column called "Desserts that Quiver" about her efforts to find satisfying gelatin desserts for her small daughter, and her discovery that they can be just as pleasing to adults. She ended up at her local natural foods store buying every exotic juice on the shelf, taking them home and transforming them into shimmering, trembling desserts.

Thus was born the Law of Gelatin. Inspired by Colwin, I have spent the week making gelatin dishes out of the most unlikely things – juice, soda, coffee, tea, cream, wine, broth – you name it, really. About the only liquid I've left ungelled is the water in the dogs' bowl, and even that seems like an amusing and tempting possibility.

Made from scratch

Making gelatin from "scratch" (not really scratch, since I am not boiling down calves hooves in my kitchen, but using the powdered, unflavored product) is a cinch. It makes you appreciate the marvelous marketing job Jell-O has done, to persuade us to buy an artificially flavored, rubbery product that is no easier to make than the real, tender, toothsome deal. All you need to do is soften some plain gelatin in a cup or so of liquid, and add to it three cups of boiling liquid, pour it into a mold or serving cups, and chill until set. Anything more "instant" than that is hard to imagine.

Which is not to say that all my experiments have met with success. For instance there was the ginger ale concoction that I made at the suggestion of the gelatin packet. Not surprisingly, since the recipe was generated by a gelatin company, the recipe called for LOTS of gelatin powder – 4 packets for 4 cups of liquid. The resulting dessert was gorgeous, with purple grapes suspended in its amber depths. But, good heavens, like those recipes for Jell-O Jigglers designed to be handled by toddlers, this dessert could be bounced off walls and return intact.

First lesson in adventures with gelatin: don't overdo it. I found that three packets of gelatin per four cups of liquid were in general more than enough.

That blend worked for all the juice gelatins I made — red ruby grapefruit (add about 1/4 cup of sugar or more to sweeten, dissolving it in the boiling juice), apricot (delicious without any additions), pomegranate (as is, or with a touch of lime). Coffee (strong espresso with sugar syrup and vanilla extract added) and tea (try Red Zinger or Earl Gray, sweetened) can be gelled, as can wines. Try combining alcohol with fruit or fruit juice — cider and calvados, sherry and grapefruit, cranberry and port, champagne and berries. Keeping in mind that the alcohol is NOT cooked out of these dishes, so they are not for kids or operators of heavy machinery!

Sometimes even three packets of gelatin is too much, as for example in the soft gelled Italian dessert panna cotta, or cooked cream. Panna cotta is like a crème brûlée or a mousse, except that rather than relying on cooked egg yolks, beaten egg whites or whipped cream for thickening, it is based on gelatin. That means that while the dessert is still rich it has a lightness that makes it easier to face after a heavy meal. Panna cotta, a gentle gel that barely holds its shape, is wonderful with berries or other fresh fruit. Try it with strawberries macerated with a little sugar, balsamic vinegar (as good as you can afford) and freshly ground black pepper.

Not just dessert

Of course, gelatin is not just a dessert thing, as all those layered salads with mayonnaise and grated carrots attest. But the basis of the salad needn't be a synthetic lime or lemon flavor, it can be real sweet vegetable juice. Tomato aspic, made with tomato juice, plain or spicy, is a refreshing start to a summer meal. Other vegetable juices (V-8, carrot juice, probably anything your juicer can produce) can be the base of a salad (with cut up vegetables or fruit added) or a terrine, sliced and served on lettuce with a vinaigrette.

Meals can also begin with a cold jellied consommé; meat broths usually thickened on their own, without any added gelatin. Foods can be coated with shiny gelatin for a presentation that looks like far more work than it is — cold poached salmon, coated in plain aspic, eggs or cold shellfish en gelee, pâté garnished with diced aspic.

Gelatin is a fun food, whether you be child, adult or even dog, for that matter. When I was a kid our dog was fascinated by Jell-O, rolling on it and batting it around before finally eating it. Our present-day dogs loved the bouncy ginger ale-grape gelatin, thinking it was a new and fruity kind of chew toy. And I am extremely curious to know what they'd think of a jellied water bowl… Give a girl a packet of gelatin, and suddenly everything in sight seems to be in need of gelling.

Tomato Aspic
March 24, 2004

3 packets of gelatin

1 cup of spicy V-8 juice

4 cups of tomato juice

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon of chili sauce (or to taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup of finely chopped yellow pepper

1 cup finely chopped scallions

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

Salad greens

Olive oil or vinaigrette

Soften gelatin in 1 cup of cold V-8 juice for several minutes.

Season tomato juice to taste. Heat in a saucepan over medium heat until it simmers briefly. Add to gelatin mixture and stir to dissolve. Allow to cool somewhat and adjust seasonings.

Stir in chopped vegetables and pour into individual custard molds or a loaf pan. Chill till cold and set.

To unmold, dip each mold in hot water for a few seconds. Run a knife around the inside of each mold, invert and allow to drop onto plate.

If you used a loaf pan, unmold as above. Serve as slices of a terrine, cut into cubes or scoop with a melon baler and pile cubes or balls onto salad greens.

Drizzle with olive oil or vinaigrette and serve.

Panna Cotta

1 envelope unflavored gelatin (about 1 tablespoon)

2 tablespoons cold water

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup half and half

1/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Fresh berries.

In a very small saucepan sprinkle gelatin over water and let stand about 1 minute to soften. Heat gelatin mixture over low heat until gelatin is dissolved and remove pan from heat.

In a large saucepan bring cream, half and half, and sugar just to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring. Remove pan from heat and stir in gelatin mixture and vanilla. Divide cream mixture among eight 1/2-cup ramekins and cool to room temperature. Chill ramekins, covered, at least 4 hours or overnight.

Dip ramekins, one at a time, into a bowl of hot water 3 seconds. Run a thin knife around edge of each ramekin and invert ramekin onto center of a small plate. Serve with fresh berries.

Serves eight.

Gourmet Magazine, August 1997.

Dark Roast Coffee Gelee

6 tablespoons finely ground (for filter) dark-roast coffee

2 1/4 cups boiling-hot water plus 1 tablespoon cold water

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (from one 1/4-oz envelope)

2 teaspoons vanilla

Sweetened whipped cream (can be flavored with Grand Marnier)

Brew ground coffee in a filter-style coffeemaker (not electric) or a sieve lined with a paper filter using 2 cups boiling-hot water.

Meanwhile, bring granulated sugar and remaining 1/4 cup hot water to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat.

Sprinkle gelatin over 1 tablespoon cold water and let soften 1 minute. Stir together hot coffee, sugar syrup, and vanilla in a metal bowl, then add gelatin mixture, stirring until dissolved. Pour into espresso cups or shot glasses. Chill, covered, until softly set, at least 8 hours.

Serves about six.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, March 2004.