What The Gel?

You wouldn’t think counting to four would be that hard, but I was having all kinds of trouble.

I had opened a box of Knox Gelatin.  It was supposed to contain four envelopes of the granules.

But I only found three.

O…M…G…I forgot, he actually is a tacky reality star!

I know mistakes are made every day, but I was honestly confounded.  It was like Bill Nye (The Science guy) had become a tacky reality star and Kim Kardashian was a noble prize-winning physicist.

There’s a saying, ‘being caught flat-footed’.  I was at a loss.  I just kept counting and re-counting.  But no matter how many times, it kept coming out three.  One envelope went missing before I ever brought it home from the grocery store.I was doing math with gelatin because I was making what you may call Knox blocks, or possibly Jell-O jigglers.

I’m not normally big into sugar-free stuff, to me it has a weird aftertaste.  But Food Lion sells the premade in a sugar-free version, and it’s pretty good.  And a piece made with real sugar is around 80 calories, opposed to the sugar-free’s 15.So, I bought a couple boxes of my fave flavor, black cherry, some Knox unflavored, and hoped for the best.

I also changed the procedure of mixing.  I always have trouble making Jell-O.  I mean, it’s as basic as making toast, or nuking a mug of soup, but I always have trouble.  Usually I end up with a hard bottom layer that’s too sweet, and an anemic top layer that never sets right.But when I use the unflavored kind for making homemade marshmallows or in savory applications, I never have problems.

So, I used the same procedure.  The blocks take four cups of water, I put three on to boil, and the fourth I used cold.  I then whisked the cold water with two small boxes of Jell-O, and four envelopes of Knox unflavored.  It got thick almost instantly, and when the water boiled, I whisked the gelled cup into the boiling water.  Then I poured it into a dish through a very fine mesh to make sure there was no unmixed to get weird. It worked great.  The finished product was clear and set with just a little jiggle.  I cut it into blocks and store them in the chill chest in a zip-top bag.  Since the weather’s gotten hot, I usually eat my way through a batch and a half a week.

Often when I’m convinced I’m starving and get ugly with the people around me, I’m not really hungry, I’m dehydrated.  These jewel-toned jiggling cubes are perfect.  They’re cold, refreshing, and very hydrating.


Jigglers made of rosé.

The coolest thing is you can make the blocks from all kinds of liquids.  How about sweet tea and lemonade?  Or maybe iced coffee?  I’ve been putting a couple drops of root beer flavoring in my blocks, the flavor blends well with black cherry, plus it smells great.  But, what about soda?  Cheer Wine blocks, anyone?  How about real wine (or Margaritas, or piña colada, or beer)?

Chilly Blocks

knox blox

5 or 6 envelopes unflavored gelatin (depending on taste)

4 cups liquid, divided

Heat 3 cups liquid to boiling.  Sprinkle gelatin over reserved liquid.  Whisk.  When liquid boils, whisk in cool liquid/gelatin.  Poor through mesh sieve into 9 X 13 dish.  Refrigerate until cool and fully set.

Slice into 36 blocks.  Refrigerate.

And the mystery of the missing envelope was never solved, but I did call the company.  About a week later I received a $5 coupon in the mail.

A squeaky wheel’s got nothing on me.Thanks for your time.


What was the deal with the fascination of jellies and aspic?No, really, this is not a rhetorical question, I sincerely want to know.  Why?  What on earth drove our forebears to dump things like sauerkraut, or hard boiled eggs, or animal organs into meat-based jello?

Was it a practical joke?  A suicide attempt?  Was it merely the fact that since they could do something, they did something, like a mad scientist creating a human/Twinkie chimera?

As bizarre as the trends in the 50s and 60s were, those folks only had to open a box of gelatin, make a big bowl of crime against nature, and chunk it in the fridge. But jellies (sweet) and aspics (savory) have been eaten since 1682.  And commercial boxed gelatin has only been around since 1842.  So for the first 160 years, hours of cooking down animal bones and hooves was the only way to get it.  You had to be profoundly motivated to do that; but people did it—a lot.

Why would they do that?  Have you ever looked at some of those jiggling mounds of horror?  It’s enough to give you nightmares.

My father is the least picky eater in the history of eating.  Not only was he raised in the “shut up and clean your plate” era, he was in the military.  If he was running late for work, he’d drink two or three raw eggs.  As children we joked that he was a human garbage disposal.This man, when asked about aspic dishes, said, “No, they’re not my thing.”


Please don’t misunderstand.  There is very definitely a place for gelatin in the kitchen.

Collagen is connective tissue in long-cooking cuts of meat like pork shoulder and beef shank.  It’s basically gelatin.  When cooked down slowly, it melts and imparts to the food that unctuous, lip-smacking property which makes eating ribs and barbecues such a joyous experience.

I’ve seen recipes where unflavored gelatin is added to quick soups and stews, to mimic that mouth-feel.  It’s actually a brilliant tip.And fruit-flavored jello is great.  Whether it’s strawberry/pretzel pizza, a bowl of black cherry, or a baggy full of Knox blocks tucked inside a lunch box, sweet, crayon-colored jello is awesome.

Every year, my mom makes a special dessert for Christmas dinner.  And jello has a starring role.

Mom’s Christmas Cake

jello-cake1 box white cake mix, made according to directions in two 8 or 9 inch round cake pans

1 small box strawberry jello

1 small box lime jello

1 large tub Cool Whip, thawed

Red and green sugar

After cakes are baked, let them completely cool in the pans.

When cool, mix jello with boiling water according to directions.  Poke each cake with large fork at ½-inch intervals.  Slowly pour hot jello over cakes, one red, and one green.

Refrigerate cakes for three hours to completely set.

To unmold cakes, dip pan bottoms in hot water for 10-15 seconds, being careful to not get cakes wet.

Put one cake on serving platter and frost its top with generous dollop of Cool Whip.  Top with other cake, then frost the entire cake.  Sprinkle on colored sugar and refrigerate until service.  Keep cold so slicing and serving are easier.Serves 6-8.  

Mom likes this cake so much that some years she uses blueberry and strawberry jello, and makes it for Independence Day.

I appreciate, gentle Reader, your patience with my aspic rantings.

But as cathartic as it was to vent, I still don’t know why would people eat that stuff?  Really, why?Thanks for your time.

Bread’s Greatest Hits

My grandmother was a straight-up, bona fide, character.Her name was Geraldine.  She looked (and acted) like an Old Testament prophetess.  She was very tall, thin, and wore her iron-gray, waist length hair in a very tight bun during the day and in a long, ropey braid when she went to bed.

Granny was tough and blunt.  She had plenty of rules and expected everyone to fall in line.  My dad always said his mother was a “test pilot at the broom factory”.

You know, she actually did bear a resemblance to Margeret Hamilton…

She married my grandfather in October of 1929.  Somehow, she fed and clothed her growing family during the greatest economic crisis this country has ever known.

She was enormously frugal and wasted nothing.  She made her own intense, delicious grape juice.  She canned, pickled and repurposed.  She still managed to produce dessert almost every night.One of my favorites was a jello-based dish.  She used the black walnuts that grew in her yard.  Dad loves them, but I find them as bitter and dark as a Dickens spinster.  In this recipe, I subbed in pecans.

Granny’s black cherry dessertjello-dessert

1-6 ounce box black cherry jello

3 cups boiling water

1 cup ice

14 ounces cream cheese

1 ½ cups large pecan pieces, toasted

Prepare your cream cheese: cut into ½-inch cubes using unflavored dental floss.  Place in refrigerator to get very cold. 

In a large bowl, mix jello, water, and ice.  Stir in pecans.  When the jello’s room temp, fold in cream cheese, keeping individual cubes intact.  Pour into 9X13 dish, refrigerate, and allow to set completely (around 4 hours).

Serves 8-10.

I think Granny went to Sunday school with General Washington.  My father’s middle name is George.

Granny also made her own potato bread.  When we visited, she would cut thick slices, toast them, and slather on butter and/or jelly.  It made the best gosh-darn toast you ever tasted.

A couple weeks ago I tried a new bread from La Farm, in Cary.  It’s Carolina Gold rice sourdough. rice-bread-1It’s very moist and tasty.  But the best part is, it makes the best toast since I sat at Granny’s table and ate my weight in hers.  I discovered it October 10th, and am on my second loaf, with plans to get more next week.  That doesn’t sound remarkable until you know that the loaves are huge, and I’ve been the only one eating it.

And this brings me to my main point.

Life is too short to eat dreadful, sub-par bread.  I’m talking about you, Wonder and Sunbeam. We live in an area rich with great bakeries, so there’s no excuse.

Here are a few of my favorites and where to get them, plus a tip to make frozen and day-old bread bakery fresh all over again.

Lots of places sell baguettes, but Earth Fare sells crusty-on-the-outside with pillow-y soft interiors for 98 cents—every day.

Costco bakes square rolls that are kind of like ciabatta.  Sandwiches on them are delicious, but they’re awesome just eaten with cold salted butter.

The Co-op has a seven-grain that is really delicious.  It makes a grilled cheese that even my white-bread-loving Petey enjoys.bakeriesNinth St bakery has quite a few lovely loaves.  A couple of my favorites are Sourdough French and sunflower.  They also have a whole grain that’s quite good.

Whole Foods, Scratch and Loaf all have diverse and delicious bread.

I leave you with a couple carb hints.

When you freeze bread, it stops the clock on staleness and mold.  If it’s toast you’re after, just toss slices, still frozen, into the toaster.  You may have to turn it up to get enough color for your taste.

If it’s rolls or loaves, leave frozen until oven heats to 350.  When it’s at temp, run each piece under water and place directly on the rack.  Then throw about ¼ cup water into the oven as well (the steam keeps the crust crispy and the insides cloud-like soft).  Bake for 13 minutes then take it out and place on cooling rack so it doesn’t get a soggy bottom (soggy bottoms are the worst).

Good as new—I promise.  There are so many things in life that you’ll probably regret.  For the love of guacamole, don’t let bread be one of them.

Thanks for your time.