JELL — Oh, no, thanks. As a kid I loved the gelatin desserts that my mother made from boxed powder, but when the ingredient list reads “SUGAR, GELATIN, ADIPIC ACID (FOR TARTNESS), CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, DISODIUM PHOSPHATE AND SODIUM CITRATE (CONTROL ACIDITY), FUMARIC ACID (FOR TARTNESS), RED 40,” that’s not a note on which I’d now like to end my dinner.
Yet this is a great time of year for honest renditions of gelled sweets, like the lemon-and-blood-orange gel that Jackie and I just made. The stores are full of juicy citrus fruits, which are the perfect base. On my last visit to a favorite New York City greengrocer, they had Meyer lemons, sweet limes, blood oranges, sour oranges and many variations on tangerines/clementines/mandarins, as well as 10 or a dozen different regular lemons, limes, grapefruits and oranges.
All you need to make a delicious, quivering gel is fruit juice, water, sugar and gelatin. It’s easy as anything, but a lot of people don’t make these desserts precisely because of that last ingredient. Gelatin has the reputation of being balky, and there’s little agreement among experienced cooks on the seemingly basic question of how much of it to use to achieve your desired result. But my preferred kind of gelatin (sold in sheets rather than powder) is easy to work with, and as long as you’re not looking to construct a scale model of the Capitol in tutti-frutti gel, exactly how firm the dessert sets isn’t all that important.
Besides fruit, there are two things you need to have on hand before you start: gelatin and simple syrup. The latter is useful to keep in the fridge to provide ready-dissolved sugar for cold drinks, cocktails and pie doughs; it typically consists of equal volumes of sugar and water, brought to the boil and chilled for storage.
On gelatin: I think the leaf gelatin favored outside the United States really is easier to handle than the powder sold in envelopes. Buy the so-called gold grade (you can get 500-sheet boxes here for around a dime a sheet, which works out to roughly the same price-per-use as powder); I bought a box years ago, split it with a friend and still have plenty in the cupboard. It lasts, I believe, forever as long as you keep it dry. If you want to use powder, one envelope is said by some to equal four sheets. That is one thing on which experts cannot achieve consensus, but we don’t need consensus. We just need dessert, and this particular dessert doesn’t demand scientific precision.
So, just squeeze your citrus, dilute and sweeten its juice, add gelatin and chill. It’s a cinch, though you need to understand a couple of things. First, diluting and sweetening the juice is imperative. By diluting it, you magically add charm to its flavor and aroma, as we were reminded some time ago in an article by Harold McGee, and once you’ve diluted it, you add syrup to restore the balance — or, if you’re using a lot of lemon juice, simply because it needs sweetening.
And second, you must be patient with the gelatin, letting it soften in cold water (or juice) before giving it plenty of time to melt over a hot-water bath.
Here’s what Jackie and I did to make our pretty pink-lemonade gelatin dessert. A day in advance, and with all the fruit at room temperature, we zested a couple of Meyer lemons and a blood orange and blanched the threads of zest for half a minute, then drained and dried them and set them aside. (The zest is optional). We squeezed about 2 cups lemon juice (mostly from Meyer lemons, plus one big regular lemon, though plain lemons would have been fine), the juice of one lime and one cup blood-orange juice to round out the lemon flavor and add a lovely color. (Regular oranges would have been just as delicious, if not as colorful.) To this 3-plus cups of juice, we added 1 cup of simple syrup, then began to taste as we added plain water: We wanted a not-too-tart/not-too-sweet “ade” that would be delightful when gelled. In this case, a 1/2 cup of water was enough. With tarter fruit, more water and/or syrup could have been necessary.
That made just over 4 1/2 cups of juice mixture. I’ve decided that one leaf of gelatin will do its job on something more than 1/2 a cup of liquid, so we counted out 7 1/2 sheets of gelatin, broke them into pieces, added juice mixture to cover and left them to soften in a heatproof bowl. When they were hydrated — soft and, some would say, rather icky-feeling — we set the bowl over a small pot of simmering water; after a good 10 minutes of intermittent stirring, the gelatin had completely melted, and we stirred it into the juice mixture. (This is why the fruit needed to be at room temperature: Fridge-cold liquid could have caused threads of gelatin to form at this point.)
Some cooks would have strained this, but we didn’t; it didn’t seem as though any gelatin clumps had formed. We stirred in the reserved zest and ladled some of the mixture into teacups for individual servings and the rest into a glass bowl. We covered the cups and bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerated them overnight, by which time they had set into a jiggly but not rubbery wonder.
The sugar and water ensured that this was not just semi-solidified juice, but rather a gel with a bright new flavor and a consistency that brought smiles to all faces. Remembering her childhood, Jackie drizzled some cream over her portion; remembering mine, I didn’t.
(If you want to drive yourself crazy, you can spend hours reading about gelatin online — here, for instance, or here — or if you are eager to learn why some gelatin is kosher and some isn’t, read this.)