Little bowls of red jiggly Jell-O were a common sight in our family’s refrigerator. Cool, bouncy, sweet and light, there’s always room for it, or so the advertisements proclaim. And its name, though trademarked, is now even listed in the dictionary, jello, a gelatin dessert.
The glue that allows red sugar water to become a firm dessert, gelatin plays a role in many other sweets: It’s used in panna cotta, and in Bavarian creams or French charlottes. It can be combined with meringue and turned into marshmallows. Or it can be put to use making a homemade version of Jell-O. (It’s also used to make any number of savory aspics, but that is another story.)
In parts of America where these molded creations abound, they’re known as desserts or salads. Some come served on lettuce leaves, and have a sweet base that’s sometimes tinted green and may suspend grated carrot, cucumber and radish. Others feature fruit salad and can be quite ornate, or humble and nostalgia-laden, made with fruit cocktail or crushed pineapple and mandarins, straight from a can.
Of course, it’s also wonderfully retro. It’s a great showpiece for a dinner party or buffet for relatively little effort, and, when you make one from scratch, substituting fresh juice and fruit for artificial flavoring and color, it can be spectacular.
Tart clementine juice and juicy blood-red pomegranate seeds make an especially elegant version, a light, refreshing dessert that’s perfect for the holidays. Seedless small clementines or satsumas are best, even if they are a little fiddly to juice. You could also use a combination of fresh orange, lime or lemon juice or substitute sparkling wine for part of the liquid.
Bear in mind that gelatin is made by cooking animal bones to release their collagen, so vegetarians and vegans may instead want to use powdered agar, a type of seaweed. Those who can’t eat pork should seek out beef-only kosher gelatin or versions made from fish skin.
Once it’s set, half the fun is in the unmolding. Inverted onto a platter, the colorful wiggling gelatinous mass is a glorious sight to behold — glittering, translucent and decorated with fresh mint leaves.