During my adventures with vintage cookbooks I’ve probably come across two or three hundred different variants on the gelatin salad. I grew up in a time where they were a fixture of church and school potlucks, but missed “peak Jell-O” by a decade or two. My experience was mostly sweet fruit salads or desserts, some permutation of gelatin and fruit and dairy or marshmallows, but once upon a time gelatin was fair game for both sweet and savory dishes.
What Mrs. Dewey Did with the New Jell-O! is a collection of “48 Fascinating New Recipes” to coincide with the release of a new Jell-O formulation. The book opens with a story of the titular Mrs. Dewey unpacking her groceries:
“Why, what’s this – I ordered Jell-O! I declare it is Jell-O – in a bright new box… Aren’t they pretty? Now we can tell the Jell-O flavors apart on the cupboard shelf. I wonder if – yes, the directions are different too. Warm water . . . not boiling! Did you ever!”
The story continues with Mrs. Dewey and her daughter Nancy marveling over the crimped seal that keeps Jell-O fresh, the finer crystals that dissolve quickly, and the remarkably fast setting time. Once upon a time, it seems, Jell-O needed to be let stand for an hour before refrigerating. In 1933 that burden was lifted! A mere hour and half later the Jell-O is fully set, and Nancy is thrilled:
“Strawberries – just like jellied strawberries!” Nancy cried. “You must have put strawberry juice in it, Mother, after I left!”
“I never did! It’s just the extra fruit flavor in this Jell-O…. There was something on the box … Oh, here it is. ‘All the pure fruit flavor is retained – not a trace is lost in steam.’ That’s it. No boiling water – remember… so none of the strawberry flavor floated away”
Needless to say Nancy did not go on to a career in the sciences.
There are advertisements elsewhere for Jell-O molds, a saccharin based Jell-O alternative (D-Zerta), and an intriguing “Ice Cream Powder”.
Just add a quart of milk to a package of Jell-O Ice Cream Powder and freeze… You’ll get nearly two quarts of delicious, wholesome ice cream!
The remainder of the cookbook includes forty-eight recipes printed in an impossibly small font with hand-painted renderings of selected dishes. Roughly half are conventional desserts of the variety described above: fruit, Jell-O, and dairy. There are a couple of recipes where egg whites are folded in to produce a foamy texture. This seems out of sync with modern food safety practices, but the truly determined can buy pasteurized eggs or – if you have a sous vide apparatus, you can pasteurize your own. There are another dozen recipes which are classified as salads. There are a few savory options, filled with vegetable matter and mayonnaise, but most are indistinguishable from desserts.
And then there’s the “Entrees and Relishes”, which probably conjure up the most awful Jell-O dishes one can think of. I’ve heard rumors of tuna fish encased in green Jell-O and bizarre Spam and pineapple concoctions – nothing here is frankly that gross. All of the entrees use Lemon Jell-O as the base, and while recipe titles like Creamy Pimiento Ring and Ham and Celery Loaf may not inspire confidence it’s worth taking a step back for a moment of clarity. When I make a chicken salad sandwich I’ll throw in a capful of maple syrup or mirin to add some sweetness, the same way I’d add sweet pickles to my tuna salad sandwich. Adding Lemon Jell-O isn’t all that much different. If you can get past the texture they actually aren’t all that bad.
One of the more extravagant-sounding recipes in What Mrs. Dewey Did with the New Jell-O! is the Charlotte Russe Imperial. For those unaware (as I was), a charlotte is a dessert that uses bread or a cookie in place of a conventional crust or pastry. The filling might be anything from fruit to chocolate to custard; a “Charlotte Russe” is usually a Bavarian cream with a ladyfinger ‘crust’. I’m not sure what’s so “Imperial” about Mrs. Dewey’s Charlotte Russe; the recipe presented in the cookbook is a variant on Bavarian cream that’s made with pre-packaged Lemon Jell-O.
Like any decent Bavarian cream or custard or Hollandaise recipe there’s an element of eggs and milk and sugar and “whisking constantly” until it coats the back of the spoon or whatever. Despite years of practice making ice creams and creme brulees I still screw this up more often than I’d like. For the last year or so I’ve gotten in the habit of using sous vide for these sorts of things – it takes a little bit of advance planning but it also takes out the guesswork. Most interwebs sites recommend making custard in jars, but I’ve had perfectly acceptable outcomes with plastic bags.
Bavarian cream usually calls for unflavored gelatin to provide the signature texture. This recipe uses flavored Jell-O instead- the texture is spot on but the lemon flavor comes through loud and clear. It’s still delicious, but no one’s going to be surprised there’s a box of lemon Jell-O in there. As written the recipe produces a heterogeneous mixture, almost like a Jell-O parfait. The gelatin/custard is partially set when you add the whipping cream and the gentle folding doesn’t produce a uniform end product. You’ll get some parts that are lemony custardy and others that are airy and creamy. This suits me just fine, but if you prefer a more homogeneous texture you can be more aggressive when folding in the whipped cream. Just be aware that you’ll lose some of the lightness in the process.
The final result more like a deconstructed Charlotte Russe, with cookies served on the side. Charlotte Russe is traditionally made with ladyfingers, but pretty much any type of cookie will do. When I made these most recently I used the leftover striped fudge cookies from Cookies ‘N Fudge Salad, which was a huge hit with the family. This would also pair well with Pepperidge Farm Milanos or those Danish Butter Cookies.
- 4 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 cups milk (2% or whole)
- 1 3 oz package lemon Jell-O
- 1/2 cup water (warm but not boiling)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 7 oz package ladyfingers (or really any other cookie you want)
- Set the sous vide bath to 175 F
- Whisk egg yolks for a few seconds, then whisk in sugar, salt, and milk. Remove to an appropriate container (see note) and place in the water bath for 60 minutes. (A little bit of extra time in the water bath won't hurt anything) Pour mixture into a large bowl.
- Mix Jell-O and warm water. Stir in to egg mixture and chill for an hour or two, until mixture is slightly thickened but not fully set.
- Whip cream and vanilla extract and fold into Jell-O mixture. Spoon into individual ramekins or large dish and chill completely, at least four hours.
Most of the sous vide custard recipes out there have you pour the custard into a glass jar to immerse completely in the water bath. At the same time, the water bath runs on the hot side here and I’m always afraid that the thermal shock of the water bath is going to break the glass. I know there’s a lot of you home canners out there who are laughing at me, but I just can’t be bothered to figure out how to do it right. Plastic bags work just fine. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer and rely on the water displacement method, be sure to use a freezer bag at these temperatures.