Before the anticipation of who would get the choicest, crispiest piece of turkey skin or the angst over whether you really could handle a second piece of pie, there was one suspenseful moment around the Thanksgiving tables of our youth: Would the Jell-O come out of the mold intact?
Two households, two eras, but one very American tradition. We each grew up with mothers who proudly placed the glistening, jiggly stuff on the holiday table.
Reminiscences about those creations during a staff meeting a few months ago prompted a little competition. Egged on by our Food section colleagues, we decided to engage in a friendly Jell-O showdown. (We will pause for your Jell-O wrestling joke and pretend that you are the first one to make it.)
There would be no winner, just full stomachs, though that didn't prevent Becky from not-so-subtly polling the tasters to see whether hers was their favorite.
On the recipe card and on the plate, these two creations differ substantially.
Becky's mold, whose recipe originated in a community cookbook owned by her grandmother, starts with two cans of cranberry sauce — the ridges of which are sadly mashed out in the process of making the mold — and strawberry Jell-O. Mix-ins include chopped apple and walnuts. Her mom makes it with crushed pineapple. But after Becky bought rings instead one year and learned that her husband's uncle was not a pineapple fan at all, out it went for good.
For Jane's recipe, provenance unknown, a box of lemon Jell-O is dissolved into apple cider, turning the liquid a nice harvest gold. Grated apple (peel included) and diced celery create festive red and green specks. Jane's Midwestern mom, taxed with making holiday dinners for her family of six plus guests, often chilled the stuff in a ring mold. But sometimes, she simply let it jell in a baking pan, then carved out squares and set them on salad plates atop an iceberg lettuce leaf, adorned with a dollop of mayonnaise.
Samples of each mold were exchanged. The result: Let's just say a mix of politeness and family pride prompted both our unwillingness to savage the competition and our personal preference for our own gelatin. It was a bitter disappointment to our co-workers, some of whom clearly had been angling for a smackdown all along. We took the high road.
Mostly. There were just a few little things. Becky said she found the celery bits in Jane's Jell-O off-putting. Jane detected a tinny flavor in Becky's that she attributed to the canned — canned! — cranberries.
Quickly regaining graciousness, Becky conceded she'd been contemplating a conversion to from-scratch cranberry sauce. And Jane allowed as how Becky's walnuts had been such a tasty touch, she might consider adding them to her family recipe.
Maybe those are tweaks for next year. Or never. Some traditions are best left largely intact — just like a perfectly turned-out Jell-O mold.
By Becky Krystal and Jane Touzalin
(c) 2013, The Washington Post.
Cranberry Sauce Mold
12 to 16 servings
Food section editorial aide Becky Krystal's family has been serving variations of this cranberry-sauce-and-Jell-O mashup for decades. The original recipe came from a Long Island "ladies' cookbook" owned by her grandmother.
If you don't have a Bundt pan or want to use a mold, make sure it has a capacity of at least 7 cups.
MAKE AHEAD: The mold mixture needs to chill for 30 to 45 minutes before the fruit and nuts are added, then it needs to set overnight in the refrigerator. The completed mold can be refrigerated up to 2 days in advance. Leave it in the pan until you're ready to serve it.
14 ounces canned cranberry sauce
14 ounces canned whole-berry cranberry sauce
2 cups water
6 ounces (1 large box or 2 small boxes) strawberry gelatin, such as Jell-O brand
2 medium apples, peeled, cored and chopped into smaller than bite-size pieces
1 cup chopped walnuts
15 ounces crushed pineapple, drained (optional)
Neutral-flavored oil, such as canola, for the pan
Use a fork or potato masher to break up both cans of cranberry sauce in a mixing bowl; it's okay if some chunks remain.
Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from the heat; whisk in the gelatin, then immediately pour the hot gelatin mixture over the mashed cranberry sauce, stirring to combine. Refrigerate for 30 to 45 minutes, until slightly thickened.
Stir the chopped apples, walnuts and crushed pineapple, if using, into the gelatin mixture.
Brush a Bundt pan with the oil, pouring off any excess that pools at the bottom of the pan. Transfer the gelatin mixture to the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the mold is well set, ideally overnight. It will be soft, but sturdy enough to hold its shape.
When ready to serve, place the pan in a few inches of warm water for a minute or two. Invert onto a serving dish; cut into wedges.
NUTRITION | Per serving (based on 16): 170 calories, 7 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar
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8 or 9 servings
As far back as Post multiplatform editor Jane Touzalin can remember, this dish was a constant on her family's holiday table, including Christmas. To save time, her mom would chill a single recipe's worth in a 9-inch square baking pan and slice it into squares to serve. When she felt ambitious, she would double the recipe — cutting back on the amount of cider for more firmness — and pour it into a ring mold; see NOTE.
MAKE AHEAD: The gelatin needs to set up for about 11/2 hours before the apples and celery are added, then should chill for at least 4 hours or, if you plan to unmold it, overnight.
3 ounces (1 small box) lemon-flavored Jell-O
2 cups cold, fresh, unsweetened apple cider
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 ribs celery
1 to 2 red apples
Mayonnaise, for serving (optional)
Empty the packet of Jell-O into a medium mixing bowl. Heat 1 cup of the cider in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the cider begins to boil, pour it into the Jell-O in the bowl and stir until all granules have dissolved. Add the salt, lemon juice and the remaining cup of cold cider, stirring to combine. Refrigerate for 1 to 11/2 hours.
Cut enough of the celery into 1/4-inch dice to yield about 1 cup. Use the large holes of a box grater to grate enough of the apples, including the peel, to yield about 1 cup.
Begin checking the refrigerated gelatin after 1 hour. When it is thick but has not set, stir in the apples and celery, mixing to distribute them evenly. The gelatin should be just firm enough so that the apples and celery don't sink to the bottom.
Spray an 8- or 9-inch square pan with cooking oil spray. Transfer the mixture to the pan, cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Cut into squares and serve cold, with a small dollop of mayonnaise, if desired.
NOTE: To double the recipe for molding, dissolve 2 packets of Jell-O in 2 cups of boiling cider, then add 13/4 cups of cold cider; the gelatin will be sturdier and will hold its shape better after unmolding. Spray the mold with cooking oil spray before filling. To unmold, use a moistened fingertip to gently pull the gelatin away from the side of the filled mold. Dip the mold into warm water up to the rim for 10 seconds. Wipe the mold dry and give it a shake to loosen. Moisten a cold serving plate and invert it over the open end of the mold; hold plate and mold together firmly, and invert both so that the Jell-O plops satisfyingly onto the plate.
NUTRITION | Per serving (based on 9): 70 calories, 0 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 85 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar