I’m not going to bake a single pie, cookie, or cake for the rest of the holiday season. I’m only making Jell-O, and I’m going to blow everyone’s minds.
Are you throwing a potluck? I’m bringing rainbow jellies with seven layers. Is it a dinner party? Bricia Lopez’s book Oaxaca contains the amber and ivory sherry tres leches gelatinas. Brunch? I’ll make Fany Gerson’s gelatina de naranja con leche, a Creamsicle for a crowd made with fresh citrus, milk, and a split vanilla bean from Mexico.
Gerson’s version of gelatina de mosaico, an amazing, multicolor all-gelatin cake made with a trio of fruity gelatins (such as mango, pineapple, and passion fruit) cut into cubes and suspended in a tres leches gelatin base, is served to the most fortunate guests. When cut and served, it appears to be a kaleidoscope slice that landed on your plate.
Mosaico, like most gelatin desserts, is ridiculously simple compared to the payoff—even when you make the flavours from scratch, as Gerson does, using plain gelatin or agar-agar, a vegan gelling agent popular in Asia.
Gelatin desserts are also inexpensive, universally loved, and Instagram gold—take Martha Stewart’s word for it. During the Thanksgiving holiday, she brags about her granddaughter’s jiggly pomegranate-grape-blancmange gelatina de mosaico.
For the past few years, I’ve made some kind of gelatin dessert at least once a month, even if it’s just opening a box and adding Cool Whip to make what Kraft Heinz marketers call a “magic mousse.” Until now, I had never considered sharing a guilty secret with any of my friends.
I’ve changed my mind as a result of a flurry of fancy gelatins I’ve seen on the internet. Aside from Martha’s (she also makes a rainbow of jellies made with fruit juice and jam and an orange spice gelatin cake with fresh citrus, anise, and cinnamon), there’s the snow-white glamour of Esteban Castillo’s traditional Mexican milk Jell-O, or gelatina de leche, which he recently posted on his site Chicano Eats.
Bowls of Indonesian lemongrass and lime jelly with pandan and palm sugar syrup from the South Asian culinary site Daily Cooking Quest, and, of course, the growing field of high-end jelly cake art filled MoMA-level gelatin flowers made with a set of plastic syringes and feather-shaped metal tips, have both impressed me.
You can learn how to make your own by taking a class from Ivy Jelly Artist, a jelly cake maker near Los Angeles, or you can order them from jelly artists all over the country, such as Solid Wiggles, a pair of restaurant pros in Brooklyn, or the mother-daughter duo Honey Flower Sweets Boutique in Houston, Texas
I visited the tiny Jell-O Gallery Museum in Le Roy, New York, a few years ago, where the fruity powders were invented in 1897 and manufactured until 1964. I went to learn about their history, which technically begins before the 10th century, when Arabic cooks were already making clear jellies from boiled bones, but I came away with a stack of old recipes and a newfound appreciation for the genre.
I began with The Roman Sponge, a cherry-coconut gelatin mousse from 1924. The Neapolitan, a chromatic four-layer cake from 1916, came next. Since then, I’ve learned how to mix prepackaged flavours (dark cherry and raspberry!) and make creamy concoctions with almost any type of dairy.
Bird’s milk, also known as ptichye moloko in Russia, is made with sour cream and Cool Whip. Melted butter and evaporated milk are the secret ingredients in My Latina Table’s fruity gelatina de leche, which is essentially a less processed version of magic mousse.
Don’t worry if you go fully packaged and processed—your guests will still enjoy it. Take Fany Gerson’s word for it, not mine. “My mother bought nothing artificial when I was growing up in Mexico,” Gerson says. Nothing canned, no sugary cereals, with the exception of Jell-O.”