Perhaps even more than how to properly cook the bird and what constitutes the perfect mashed potatoes (lumps or whipped? skins or smooth? all-butter or garlic-infused?), it’s the Thanksgiving dessert table that must not, under any circumstances, be tampered with. The featured dishes need not be gourmet or even homemade to make the cut (in fact, it’s been my experience that most desserts have more to do with tradition than taste), but this can lead to some interesting selections. As a prime example, in many families across America (and maybe even yours), no holiday is complete without a wobbly, sparkling red or green gelatin mold.
Gelatin, which is made from the collagen in animal bones, has been around as a firming ingredient for centuries and used to be considered a sign of wealth since it was painstakingly difficult and time consuming to render, clarify, and turn into a beautiful molded dessert. Then, during the 1890’s, a New York cough syrup manufacturer decided to pair gelatin with a variety of fruit syrups, and named the resulting inexpensive sugary powder “Jell-O.” By 1902 recipe booklets made their way across the country touting Jell-O as “America’s most favorite dessert.”
While many classic gelatin mold recipes (especially the savory ones) horrify modern cooks with ingredients like cottage cheese, canned peas, and the often unfortunate pairing of lemon gelatin with canned tomato soup, many of the sweeter varieties really aren’t so bad. Yes, pairing a artificial fruit-flavored gelatin with syrupy canned fruit and chopped walnuts or mini-marshmallows sounds like the start to a sugar-fueled stomachache, but an ache has to be better than a halting lurch (I’m looking at you, creamy molded seafood salad!).
Wanting to see what the gelatin mold fuss was all about and with Thanksgiving on my mind, I dug up a recipe for a two-layer cranberry variety and got to work. After dissolving two boxes of cherry gelatin in boiling water, I added a can of whole-berry cranberry sauce and two small cans of crushed pineapple, then a half cup of chopped walnuts. Then resulting candy-colored concoction went into the fridge in a 12-cup Bundt pan for several hours to chill.
The second layer was supposed to be a creamy one — made with more cherry gelatin, cranberry juice, and sour cream. It was a delicate pink color, and after chilling overnight, things were looking good.
But soon they weren’t.
Having a tough time getting the mold to release from the pan after several hours filled upside down over a plate, I used a butter knife to gently loosen the sides. When that didn’t work, I hunted online for advice on how to un-mold Jell-O and read that it helps to partially immerse the mold in a bowl of warm water for 60 seconds. I kept it to 15 seconds, but either the water was too warm or the metal pan absorbed the heat too quickly because when I next tried to invert the mold it splashed and splattered out in a terrific pink explosion.
Turns out the heat melted the gelatin, giving it the messy upper hand.
The next time I tried (no way was a gelatin mold beating me!) I stuck to just one layer — the first one — and bid the sour cream adieu.
Say what you will about the retro gelatin mold (and you will — one of my co-workers revealed to me that it’s a rule in her family that if you want to marry in you’ve got to eat a slice of the mysterious lime-green holiday mold), but don’t say it’s not capable of turning heads. I’m also willing to bet that if your mother, aunt, or grandmother stopped making your family’s mold, you’d soon miss seeing it quiver and shine in the candlelight — even if you’d rather eat lumpy mashed potatoes than take a bite.
Is there a gelatin mold in your family? Tell us about it in the comments section below!
Happy Thanksgiving and happy eating!