Gelatin desserts were once very posh, a real Downton Abbey kind of thing. In Victorian England, their jewel-like colours would be moulded into elaborate shapes, and they often served as spectacular centrepieces at formal dinners.
By the middle of the 20th century, the popularity of packaged Jell-O transformed gelatin into a cheerful, democratic, all-American treat. Lately, gelatin has experienced a cultural decline. In his docu-fantasia My Winnipeg, filmmaker Guy Maddin gives a nostalgic tip of the hat to the jiggling orange Jell-O at The Bay's Paddlewheel restaurant, now closed. Increasingly associated with hospital food and school cafeterias, gelatin desserts are often dismissed as old-fashioned or kitschy.
It's time to reclaim a little of that old-time gelatin glamour. The secret to upgrading gelatin desserts is to bypass packaged versions and make your own, using plain unflavoured gelatin, real fruit juices and maybe a little liquor. (But not too much liquor -- we don't want to venture into Jell-O vodka shots territory.) Calling these dishes by the French name, gelée, also really helps, glamour-wise.
Many gelatin recipes allow for some freestyling, though you need to avoid certain fresh fruits -- pineapple, kiwi, figs, papaya, mango and guava -- which contain enzymes that keep gelatin from jelling.
If you have a neglected jelly mould sitting around your kitchen, this could be the time to use it. You'll need gelatin that sets quite firmly for desserts that will be unmoulded. (Look for recipes that use at least 15 ml (1 tablespoon) gelatin to 500 ml (2 cups) total liquid.) You can also chill the gelatin mix in a small baking pan, and then cut it into squares and spoon into serving glasses. The easiest method is just to chill the gelatin in the cocktail glasses or dessert cups you'll use for serving.
Homemade gelatin recipes offer grown-up, not-too-sweet flavours, and work well as refreshing summer desserts or as a light finish to heavy winter meals. And really, making them isn't that much harder than using a packaged version. So go ahead and get your jiggle on with these new-style gelatin recipes.
Prosecco and Blackberry Gelée
30 ml (2 tbsp) unflavoured gelatin (each Knox packet contains about 15 ml or 1 tbsp)
750 ml (3 cups) chilled Prosecco or other sparkling white wine, divided
250 ml (1 cup) granulated sugar
340 g (about 1 pint) fresh blackberries
250 ml (1 cup) club soda or sparkling water, chilled
In a large bowl, evenly sprinkle gelatin over 250 ml (1 cup) chilled Prosecco. Let stand 5 minutes. In medium heavy saucepan, stir together sugar and remaining 500 ml (2 cups) Prosecco. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, a few minutes more until sugar is dissolved. Add hot Prosecco mixture to gelatin mixture, and stir until gelatin dissolves. (The spoon, when lifted out, should be clear of granules.) Chill in bowl about 30-45 minutes until slightly thickened. Meanwhile, wash the blackberries and drain and dry well so no excess water dilutes the gelatine mix. Divide berries among 6 glasses. Add chilled club soda or sparkling water to chilled gelatin mixture and stir until blended. Divide evenly among glasses. Chill until set, about 6-8 hours.
Tester's notes: The number of glasses needed will vary depending on their size. I used six standard martini glasses. It's important that the club soda be well chilled, as the cold helps to trap some of the bubbles.
This dessert looks great and has a complex, not overly sweet flavour. And the really great thing about this recipe? It leaves just enough Prosecco to give the cook one small drink.
Orange and Campari gelée
250 ml (1 cup) superfine (berry) sugar
250 ml (1 cup) water
500 ml (2 cups) orange juice (if using juice with pulp or fresh-squeezed, strain through a fine-mesh sieve)
22 ml (1 1/2 tbsp) unflavoured gelatin
125 ml (1/2 cup) Campari
In a medium heavy saucepan, stir sugar and water over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves, then boil for about 5 minutes. Add the orange juice. In a small bowl, evenly sprinkle gelatin over some cold water (about 60 ml or 1/4 cup), and let stand for 5 minutes. Microwave on high power for 30 seconds. Stir to dissolve gelatin (the spoon, when lifted out, should be clear of granules), then add to juice mixture and stir. Add the Campari, and divide among six glasses or small dishes. Chill until set, about 6-8 hours. Garnish with orange slices, if desired.
Tester's notes: One very important footnote to this recipe: You really have to like the taste of the Italian aperitif Campari, which is bitter and a bit medicinal, to like this dessert. I used not-from-concentrate OJ, which worked fine, but fresh-squeezed orange juice would be even better. If you're feeling very fancy, blood oranges (when they're in season) will give this recipe gorgeous flavour and colour. I found this recipe produced a soft-set jelly, so if you want to make it for a mould that will hold its shape, you'll need to increase the gelatine to about 30 ml (2 tbsp).
15 ml (1 tbsp) unflavoured gelatin
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) pomegranate juice, divided
45 ml (3 tbsp) granulated sugar
In a small bowl, evenly sprinkle gelatin over 125 ml (1/2 cup) pomegranate juice. Let stand for 5 minutes. In a small heavy saucepan, stir remaining 250 ml (1 cup) pomegranate juice with sugar over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture is beginning to boil. Remove from heat, add the gelatin mixture and stir until gelatine dissolves (the spoon, when lifted out, should be clear of granules). Divide among 4 glasses or small dishes. Chill 6-8 hours. Garnish with whipping cream or Greek yogurt.
Tester's notes: Just as easy as a packaged mix but with a brighter, sweet-tart taste and lovely colour.