For most of my life I never questioned Jell-O, the garish, jiggly gelatin dessert that is the lynchpin of every American childhood, never wondered what the imitation flavors were an imitation of. So it was a revelation when I tried making a homemade “Jell-O”: it had a beautiful color, with a flavor that was intense, vivid and REAL. It was so simple to make I wondered why there was instant; it’s little more than fruit juice jelled with unflavored gelatin, has very little sugar and no additives or colorings. I’ve found it has as much appeal to adults as to children; I serve it for dessert at dinner parties.
Here’s the basic formula and three favorite iterations: Guava-Banana “Jell-O”; Berry, Cherry, Peach or Black Current “Jell-O”; and Herb-Infused Wine “Jell-O”
Real “Jell-O” is easy to make:
— Buy some quality fruit juice: fresh apple cider or grape-juice from the farmer’s market, or fresh grapefruit or tangerine juice let’s say; or bottled nectars in exotic flavors like passion fruit, pear or white peach. One of my favorite “Jell-Os” is made with guava nectar available in cans at my supermarket; it has with a complex pineapple-banana-citrus-mango flavor and coral-like color.
—Heighten the flavor of the juice with sugar or honey and a good dose of lemon juice.
—Jell according to this formula: one 1/4-ounce package of unflavored gelatin (a tad over 2 1/4 teaspoons), available at any supermarket, will jell 2 cups of liquid.
Better still is to make your own juice by passing fresh fruits through an electric juicer and sweetening the juice to taste. (If the juice tastes a bit watery, boil it to concentrate its flavor before jelling.)
To extract the juice from difficult-to-juice soft fruits such berries, peaches, black currents, and cherries, see Berry, Cherry, Peach or Black Current “Jell-O”, below.
When improvising, bear in mind that flavors get muted in the process of jelling. Adding lemon juice – at least 1 tablespoon per cup – and enough sweetener, is essential to making flavors bright and vivid.
“Jell-O” will keep about 5 days covered and refrigerated.
Recipe: Guava-Banana “Jell-O”
Use this recipe as a rough model for “jell-O’s” improvised from juices, sweetening to taste. You can leave out the banana or substitute other sliced fruits, with the exception of pineapple, mango or kiwi, which inhibit jelling.
3 cups guava nectar, such as Goya brand
3 1/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin (1 packet plus 1 teaspoon)
2 tablespoons sugar or to taste
Pinch kosher salt
2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice
1 ripe medium banana
Pour 1/2 cup of the guava nectar into a medium size glass bowl or measuring cup and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let stand 1 minute.
In a medium saucepan over moderate heat bring the remaining 2 1/2 cups guava nectar to a simmer. Add the sugar and salt and stir until dissolved. Turn off the heat, add the gelatin mixture and stir until dissolved. Stir in the lime juice and set the mixture aside to cool slightly.
Cut the banana into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Place 4 or 5 slices in each of four 1-cup glasses, or into a 1-quart serving dish. Pour the guava mixture over the top. The banana slices will rise to the top; gently push them into a nice arrangement.
Let cool, then refrigerate for several hours until set.
Recipe: Berry, Cherry, Peach or Black Current “Jell-O”
Rather than trying to juice soft fruits such as blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, cherries or black currents, I simmer them in my standard “faux dessert wine” mixture of dry white wine and honey until they release their juices; then I jell the strained syrup for fragrant, intensely flavored “Jell-O”. In winter, use this method with inexpensive packaged frozen fruit.
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup wild flower honey
1/4 cup sugar, or more to taste
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
One 2-inch strip each orange and lemon zests
3 to 4 cups blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, black currents or
slice peaches, in any combination
2 sprigs fresh thyme, optional
One 1/4-ounce packet unflavored (a tad over 2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a large saucepan, combine the wine, honey, sugar, water and orange and lemon zests; bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Simmer 5 minutes until the alcohol is cooked off. Add the fruit and thyme, if desired, and simmer until they are falling apart, about 5 minutes. Strain the fruit, pressing to extract all the syrup; discard the pulp. Meanwhile, sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons water in a large metal bowl and let soften several minutes.
Return the berry syrup to the saucepan. Over very low heat, stir the gelatin into the berry syrup until dissolved. Add lemon juice and more sugar to taste. Pour the mixture into a serving dish and chill several hours or overnight until the gelatin is set.
Herb-Infused Wine “Jell-O”
This wine “Jell-O” tastes like it was made from dessert wine, though in reality, it is a combination of white wine, honey and lemon and orange zest. While it is simmering, I add sprigs of fresh herbs —my favorite combination is 2 sprigs each of thyme, lemon verbena, basil and peppermint — removing them when they’ve imparted a subtle herbal flavor. Serve it alone, with crème fraîche, or alongside just about any kind of fresh fruit – sliced fresh white peaches, for example – that you’ve marinated with sugar and a little lemon juice.
3 cups white wine
1/2 cup wild flower honey
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
One 3-inch strip each orange and lemon zests
1 packet unflavored gelatin (a tad over 2 1/4 teaspoons)
8 or 9 sprigs of fresh herbs, such as thyme, lavender, lemon verbena, basil, or mint in any
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a medium saucepan, combine the white wine, honey, sugar, 1 cup water and orange and lemon zests; bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Simmer 5 minutes until the alcohol is cooked off. Meanwhile, sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons water in a medium metal bowl and let soften several minutes.
Remove the wine from the heat and add the herbs; infuse a minute or two until the wine takes on a subtle herbal flavor. Strain the wine into the gelatin and stir until dissolved; discard the herbs. Add the lemon juice. Pour the mixture into a serving dish and chill several hours or overnight until the gelatin is set. Just before serving, gently scramble the gelatin with a fork to break it into small jewel-like pieces.