I GREW UP detesting jellied anything. The aspics of my childhood were a gooey softness surrounding gristly meat (one of my grandmother's more unpleasant specialties) or cucumber molds in lime Jello (I have never been able to stomach sweet salads). I was able to cope with a gelatin dessert if it was loaded with sliced banana, which at least modified the super-artificial raspberry or black cherry flavoring. But that was it.
Then, after years of boycotting gelatin in every form, I was seduced by a beautiful oeuf en gelee that had been carried out from a superior charcuterie on the Rue de Seine. Next I tried a gelee of chicken livers in Madeira. It was delicious. Then in London, my husband's Aunt Juliette produced a chicken aspic whose flavor is still as haunting as that of Proust's madeleine. As a convert, and thus the truest of believers, I have since pursued the mysteries of gleatin, the substance that causes liquids to gel; jellies or gelees, the liquid that gels because of its gelatin content, and aspics, the food molded along with the jelly.
Gelatin, according to the "Oxford English Dictionary," is the "substance which is the basis of the jellies into which certain animal tissues (skin, tendons, ligaments, the matrix of bones, etc.) are converted when treated with hot water for some time." Or, gelatin is extruded when you make stock.
Beef, veal, pork, chicken and fish are natural sources of gelatin. Beef and veal shin bones and pig's calf's and chicken feet contain a lot of gelatin. Fish bones are big elatin producers as are bacon rinds. Depending on a person's energy level and time allotment and the availability of shin bones and various feet, supplementary supplies of unflavored gelatin can be obtained at the supermarket in granular form in one tablespoon envelopes, and at German delicatessens and class kitchen stores in leaf form, usually five leaves to the packet.
Purists insist that the source of the gelatin makes all the difference in the flavor, texture and overall quality of the final product. Elizabeth David goes so far as to say that we needn't bother making an aspic if we don't start with split feet and such, since aspic jelly made from granular gelatin is "too sticky and gluey" and lacks the "delicate flavor of jelly made from beef and veal."
As with almost everything, there is an acceptable compromise.
When I make a chicken or turkey aspic or an a la mode, I use the stock from cooking the meat as the basis for the jelly. If I am going to unmold the aspic, the jelly usually needs the help of some supplementary gelatin (always the unflavored kind), particularly if I haven't added veal shin bones (although I buy these when I come across them and keep them in the freezer for just such uses). I supplement fish poaching stock with some fish fumet (reduced fish stock, again from the freezer) blended with some chicken broth (either canned or from the freezer) since my husband is delicate about fishy fish. Usually more gelatin will have to be added.
Needless to say, the more natural gelatin in the stock, the better the jelly will be -- not only because the presence of a lot of gelatin indicates a good, strong stock but also because, for whatever reason, the texture will be finer. Leaf gelatin, which European cooks and French restaurants favor, makes a more refined jelly that is much closer to the natural product. This must, somehow, be related to the way the gelatin is processed.
Granulated gelatin must usually be softened first in cold liquid; more liquid is then added and the gelatin is dissolved over heat. Leaf gelatin is softened in a bowl of warm water; when the leaves become soft (and really pleasant to the touch, not slithy, as might be anticipated), they are squeezed out, added to the liquid and dissolved over heat.
The proportion of gelatin to liquid which does not contain any natural gelatin is usually 1 tablespoon (or 1 envelope) of granular or 4 leaves to each 1 1/2 to 2 cups of liquid. However, the only way to know whether a jelly will stiffen to the correct consistency is to test it. I do this by pouring an inch of the jelly into a small glass custard cup, which stiffens in no time in the refrigerator.
If the jelly is so soft that it won't hold the finished aspic, add gelatin -- but judiciously. (Be sure to soften, then melt the added gelatin.) If the jelly is rubbery and hard, add more of the basic liquid. And test again. This is the time when fussing pays off.
Testing is also important because certain foods act on gelatin, some to such an extent that they destroy it. Fresh pineapple contains an enzyme called bromeline that is very close to papain and "eats" gelatin. Since heat destroys the enzyme, only cooked pineapple can be used in aspics.
Wines or cognac, which are the most usual flavorings for jellies, reduce the gelatiness of gelatin. Coffee also seems to affect gelatin -- at least the strong expresso I use takes more gelatin than seems reasonable.
Although some claim that clarifying a jelly -- removing all the particles in a stock that make it cloudy -- detracts from flavor, I am, for most dishes, devoted to crystal clear jellies because they are wonderful foils for show-off decorations.
I use a very simple and efficient method of clarification. First the stock must be thoroughly degreased, which of course is always easier to do when it is cold, since the fat solidifies and can be quickly removed. The trick, therefore, is to make the stock the day before you make the jelly.
The degreased stock is placed in a asucepan, to which I add herbs, the gelatin and two or three "depending on the amount of stock) lightly beaten egg whites and, if they happen to be around, a couple of crushed egg shells. (Clarification works equally with or without the shells.) Stirring constantly (to prevent the whites from burning), bring the stock to a boil. Some recipes recommended simmering the stock anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, but I have never found this to be necessary so I proceed immediately to the next step. Line a sieve with several layers of decent, tightly woven cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel, wrung out of cold water. Set the sieve over a bowl and ladle the stock through. A miraculously brilliant liquid will filter into the bowl and everything else will remain behind. Should the jelly cool too much during the ladling process, it can be reheated. s
Cognac and fortified wines -- port, sherry and, my favorite, Madeira -- are the most-used flavorings for aspics. About half a cup seems to be right for five cups of jelly. I find that white vinegar or lemon juice in small quantities brings up flavor. Any clear liquid flavoring can be added after clarification. Herbs should, of couse, be cooked with the stock and then clarified out. Tarragon is a classic, especially for eggs or chicken.
Tasting and tasting again is critical, And remember, cold dulls flavor, so don't be afraid to over-season within reason.
All ingredients for aspics must be cold and, therefore, prepared in advance. I cook up the meats, vegetables, whatever and refrigerate them in individual plastic bags which I decant into individual dishes when I start to fill the mold. A satisfactory proportion is 1 1/2 cups of solids for every cup of jelly.
It is also a good idea to put the mold in the freezer well before you set about filling it. Any kind of mold will do -- tin jelly molds, metal bowls, vitreous china pudding basins, ring molds, fancy molds and plain molds. I prefer metal, which, because it conducts heat so quickly, is easier to unmold, but use anything without a hole in the bottom.
The first step in filling a mold is to coat it with a thin layer of jelly. The chilled mold is set in crushed ice in a large container, and some liquid jelly, cooled to the consistency of a thick syrup is poured into the mold and swished around until it forms a thin layer. This happens quickly.
If my supply of crushed ice is low or if I am working with a peculiar shape (as in a chicken mold) I coat differently: I fill the mold with jelly (you need a lot of jelly), refrigerate it for about 15 to 20 minutes (although I start testng after 10 minutes) and then pour off the liquid center. This leaves a nice lining. The trick is not to spill the jelly when it is being placed in the refrigerator and not to leave it in the refrigerator so long that the center sets.
I return the coated mold to the refrigerator while I line up the chilled ingredients. I also pour off some of the liquid jelly into a small custard cup, in which the decorations and other foods will be dipped before they are applied to the mold. Dipping foods in jelly helps enormously in placing them where they are wanted in the mold, while using a separate dish of jelly keeps the remaining bulk free from food particles.
The first layer is made up of the primary decorations: tarragon or watercress leaves, egg white and egg yolk cutouts, pimiento, sliced black or green olives, truffle shavings (for the big splurge) or whatever. The decorations are dipped into the cup of jelly, placed on the mold and the mold is returned to the refrigerator for a few minutes to set the decorations and prevent them from floating.
Once set, a thin layer of jelly is poured over the decorations and again the mold is returned to the refrigerator. When this stiffens, the mold is filled a layer at a time with food and jelly. If side decorations are unimportant, all the food and jelly can be combined and turned into the mold at once.
The mold should be tapped gently to encourage the jelly to filter through any crevices. Filled molds should be refrigerated until set, preferably overnight.
Leftover jelly can be poured into a roasting pan, refrigerated and then turned out and chopped to decorate the plate that holds the unmolded aspic. These pieces sparkle like diamonds.
To unmold an aspic, run a knife around the top, fill a dishpan with hot water and dip the mold in and out of the water three times. Each dip should last no more than a second. Place a platter over the mold and, holding the mold in place, turn upside down. If the aspic does not come free, dip the mold for another second. Much longer will melt the nice coating.
In addition to aspics, jellies are wonderful for coating food. Pelleprat recommends coating hors d'oeuvres with clear jelly to prevent the dreadful tired look that comes when food is exposed to air for any time. The jelly can be clear or in the form of a white chaud-froid, which can be decorated and coated with clear jelly. Gelatin is also used in cold mousses and souffles, almost always in combination with whipped cream, sour cream, mayonnise, beaten egg whites, cream cheese or cream sauces. Clear jellies can be poured into cold meat pies.
My own preference is to use jellies in savory dishes -- for first and main courses and for accompanying garnishes. The main dishes I usually save for hot weather. The first courses are perfect year round.
Now, a confession. I made every one of the aspics that follow for a single dinner. To everybody's surprise, including my own, the meal was a success, although it came very close to being too much of a good thing. QUICK CLEAR ASPIC JELLY NO. 1 (Makes a scant quart) (For eggs, chicken, turkey, fish and meat) 3 cups chicken broth, canned or homemade, and degreased 1 cup tomato juice 3 to 4 envelopes unflavored gelatin Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon dried tarragon or chervil 2 lightly beaten egg whites 2 crushed egg shells (optional) 3 tablespoons cognac 3 tablespoon Madeira (medium sweet) or other fortified wine Lemon juice to taste
Combine all ingredients except for alcohols and lemon juice in a saucepan and heat slowly, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to the boil. Rinse in cold water and wring out several layers of tightly woven cheesecloth or a kitchen towel and line a sieve. Ladle mixture through the sieve and into a bowl. If the aspic congeals, reheat gently. Cool and add the flavorings to taste. Refrigerate a few tablespoons in small dish to test for firmness. Cool the jelly until it has the consistency of a thick syrup. QUICK CLEAR ASPIC JELLY NO. 2 (Makes 3 cups) (For chickens, turkey, meat and fish) 3 cups chicken broth, beef bouillon or a combination of fish stock and chicken broth, depending on filling, degreased 2 envelopes gelatin Salt and pepper to taste Paprika and celery salt, if desired, to taste 1/4 cup white vinegar or 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1 or 2 slightly beaten egg whites Proceed as for Quick Clear Aspic No. 1 QUICK CLEAR ASPIC JELLY NO. 3 (Makes about 6 cups) (For beef, veal or chicken livers) 5 cans (10 1/2 ounces) consomme 3 envelopes gelatin
Dissolve gelatin in 1 cup of cold consomme. Add remaining consomme and heat until dissolved. Cool and flavor, if desired, with cognac, Madeira or port, Test for stiffness and refrigerate until the jelly has the consistency of a thick syrup. EGG WHITE SHEET
(For making decorations for aspics)
Butter a 9-inch pizza pan, pour 8 unbeaten egg whites into it and bake in a 300* oven until whites are set. Cool, unmold on a damp cheesecloth and make decorations with aspic cutters or a knife. EGG YOLK SHEET
Hard-cook 6 egg yolks. Dissolve 3 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin in 1 cup of broth or aspic jelly. Blend the mixture in a blender until smooth. Pour into an oiled 9-inch pizza pan and chill. -- From "The Making of a Cook," by Madeleine Kamman HERB SAUCE (Makes about 2 cups) (For eggs in aspic and chicken in aspic)
Fit a food processor with the steel knife. Place in the bowl 1 egg yolk, salt and peper to taste, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and 3 tablespoons wine vinegar. Turn motor on and add 1 cup vegetable oil slowly through the feed tube. Feed in 3 tablespoons cut up chives, a small handful of parsley, a few shallots or cut up green onions and 1 teaspoon of fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon. Process until herbs are chopped. This sauce has the consistency of mayonnaise. EGGS IN ASPIC (OEUFS EN GELEE) (Serves 6) (For a first course) 1 recipe Quick Clear Aspic Jelly No 1, chilled to the consistence of a thick syrup Tarragon or watercress leaves, tiny rounds of roasted red peppers or pimiento 6 poached eggs, cooled in water, drained and trimmed 6 thin slices boiled ham or smoked salmon, optional 6 egg molds, custard cups or a 3-cup ring mold
Spoon a thin layer of the jelly into the molds and chill until set. Dip the leaves and pimiento into some reserved liquid jelly and decorate the bottoms of the molds. Chill. Spoon another thin layer of jelly over the decorations and set. Place the optional slice of ham or salmon on the decorations and add the poached egg (or add the egg first and then the slice of whatever). Fill with jelly, chill and unmold. Set any remaining jelly in a shallow pan and chop for garnishing. CHICKEN LIVERS IN ASPIC (Serves 12) 1 recipe Quick Clear Aspic Jelly No. 3, chilled to the consistency of a thick syrup Yellow and white egg cutouts (see recipe), watercress leaves 1 pound chicken livers 4 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons oil 1/4 cup finely minced shallots or green onion Salt and pepper to taste Pinch of allspice 1 cup Madeira (medium sweet preferably)
Pour a thin layer of jelly into the bottoms of 12 half-cup molds or a 6-cup ring mold and refrigerate. When set, place decorations, dipped into some reserved jelly, in the mold.Set and add another 1/8 inch layer of jelly. Return to refrigerator.
Remove membranes and any blackish or greenish spots from livers and dry livers throughly on paper towels.Heat butter and oil in a large skillet and add the livers.Stir and toss for 2 minutes or so to brown the livers very lightly. Add the shallots or onions and toss for 5 seconds more. Drain out all the sauteing fat from the skillet. Sprinkle the seasonings over the livers and pour in the Madeira. Cover and simmer very slowly for 8 minutes, then remove the livers and set aside. Rapidly boil down the cooking juices until reduced to a syrup. Remove from heat, roll the livers in the juices and chill.
Arrange chicken livers over the layer of set jelly and fill with the remaining jelly. Chill until set and unmold. Set any remaining jelly in a shallow pan and chop for garnishing. TURKEY BREAST IN ASPIC (Serves 12)
Defrost a 5-to-6-pound turkey breast and cook it with some carrot, onion, celery tops and a bouquet garni. Let the meat cool in the stock, remove and separate meat. Return the skin and bones to the stock and reduce stock to 6 cups. Strain. Reserve half the turkey meat for another use and cut remainder into half-to-1-inch dice and refrigerate.
Using the 6 cups of reduced stock, make a double quantity of Quick Aspic Jelly No. 1 or No. 2. Clarify and cool to the consistency of a thick syrup.
Cook until done but not mushy, in the same water but one by one add any or all of the following: half a package of frozen artichoke hearts, half a package of frozen peas, a handful of string beans, a carrot trimmed into "baby" carrots, 1/2 pound sauteed mushrooms, 1 cup chopped celery, 2 hard cooked eggs, sliced, 12 stuffed olives, sliced or 1 cup blanched almonds. Drain and refrigerate in separate plastic bags.
Chop a stalk of celery and refrigerate. Avacado slices are also a good addition.
Line a large round bowl or a chicken mold with jelly and fill, layer by layer, to make a beautiful design. Chill, unmold and serve with a double recipe of herb sauce (see recipe). COFFEE JELLY WITH MACAROON CREAM (Serves 6) 2 envelopes gelatin (perhaps more) 3 1/2 cups strong coffee, expresso preferably 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon Tia Maria or rum (optional)
Dissolve gelatin in 1/2 cup of the cold coffee. Add 1 cup of boiling coffee and sugar. Stir well. Let cool for 30 minutes, then add the remaining 2 cups of coffee, vanilla and optional alcohol; stir again. Test a sample. Pour into a 9-inch ring mold. Chill until set. Turn jellied coffee onto a chilled plate and fill the center with macaroon cream. Macaroon Cream: 1 1/2 cups whipping cream 3 tablespoons sugar 1 jigger dark rum 1 cup (6 packets) Amaretti di Saronno or other macaroons, pulverized in blender
Whip cream, add sugar and rum, fold in pulverized macaroons. -- From "Charleston Recipes"