The cure for writer’s block: molded gelatin salad!

I have been suffering recently with a case of writer’s block. I have several drafts of future posts for Vanalogue in various stages of completion, but have been unable to complete any of them. It has been very frustrating. In order to relieve the tension of uncompleted tasks and release the writer’s block, I decided it was time to try something creative, fun and a little daring – making a molded gelatin salad.

About a year ago I wrote the following in a post titled Cooking Up the Past:

My ultimate vintage recipe goal is to make a gelatin salad or aspic – there is something truly otherworldly about them. However,  first I need to procure a nice gelatin mold… and perhaps a little courage!

Though it took me about a year, I’m pleased to announce that I conquered my fears, found a vintage gelatin mold and made my first molded gelatin salad. In fact, I made two. Here’s the full story:

Vintage jelly mold. Photo: C. Hagemoen
Vintage jelly mold. Photo: C. Hagemoen

For months I have been scouring second hand stores and garage sales for a vintage gelatin mold. I finally found this 6″ tall one for $3 this summer. I thought it would make a very elegant looking gelatin salad (and would also be excellent for making a fancy ice cream bomb!).

I really wanted to make a gelatin salad with “things” suspended in it, so I scoured my collection of vintage cookbooks and the internet for suitable recipes. During my research I discovered that Jell-O once produced vegetable flavoured gelatin’s specifically for gelatin salads. Apparently the the possibilities were endless for what one could suspend in gelatin!

Vintage ad for vegetable flavoured Jell-O for salads.
Vintage ad for vegetable flavoured Jell-O for salads.

My mold holds about 6 cups of liquid so I purchased 4 boxes of lemon flavoured gelatin. I figured lemon (or lime) would be the most neutral flavour for my salad. Most of the recipes I found seemed to favour those two flavours when combining fruit and vegetables.

Photo of a melon molded salad from Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company, Chicago, Revised edition, 1958.
Photo of a melon shaped molded salad with grapefruit and avocado from Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company, Chicago, Revised edition, 1958.

In order to suspend pieces of fruit, vegetables (or other objects) in gelatin you have to carefully incorporate them into the gelatin after it has set for a bit. Timing is critical, if you add them too soon, they will simply float to the top. If you add them too late you compromise the integrity of your gelatin. Since I had grapes and and carrots on hand (and it seems for most of these recipes anything goes) I decided to suspend them in the lemon gelatin.

My first attempt immediately after release - a leaning tower of yellow jello.
My first attempt immediately after release – a leaning tower of yellow jello. Photo: C. Hagemoen

I seemed to have master the art of suspension, but my gelatin salad didn’t seem to have the strength needed to hold itself up. About a minute after I released my salad from the mold, this happened:

Complete gelatin failure! Photo: C. Hagemoen
Complete gelatin failure! Photo: C. Hagemoen

It looked like one of those red jellyfish you sometimes find washed up on shore on the West Coast.

There were two things I discovered with my first attempt. First, the gelatin to liquid ratio has to be adapted in order to get a stronger gelatin. Second, no matter how cute they looked, bits of carrot in lemon-flavoured gelatin is a very unpleasant flavour combination.

Aspic Recipe and another exemplar example of gelatin suspension.
Aspic Recipe and another exemplar example of gelatin suspension from The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, Revised Edition, 1962.

For my next attempt, I decided to move away from the sickly sweetness of fruit-flavoured gelatin towards something more savoury and elegant – tomato aspic.  As I was perusing the ingredient lists of recipes for tomato aspic, I was constantly reminded of the flavours found in a Bloody Caesar (minus the vodka).

Eureka! Instead of a regular tomato aspic, I would make a Bloody Caesar aspic. I figured if I’m going to have to eat another molded salad, I might as well enjoy myself ( I hate wasting food).  Since I already had a bottle of vodka, celery and some Worcestershire sauce on hand, my investment would be limited to a bottle of Clamato juice and some plain gelatin. Since I’ve previously had good success with gelatin sheets, I decided to use them instead of powdered gelatin to set my aspic.

Bloody Ceasar Aspic. Photo: C. Hagemoen
Bloody Caesar Aspic. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Success! Look at that beauty!

View as seen from the aspic heavens! Photo: C.Hagemoen
View as seen from the aspic heavens! Photo: C. Hagemoen

With no sign of imminent collapse, I had plenty of time to try some food styling for these photographs.

The next step was to taste my creation. As I cut myself a slice of Caesar, I noticed the texture was quite different from a regular gelatin. I began to get a little concerned.

A slice of Bloody Ceasar Aspic. Photo: C.Hagemoen
A slice of Bloody Caesar Aspic. Notice the bits of celery that didn’t successfully suspend in the gelatin. Photo: C. Hagemoen.

The flavour of a traditional Caesar was certainly there (vodka and all), but the texture wasn’t what I expected. It is rather hard to put into words the exact nature of the texture, suffice it to say my aspic had a rather awkward mouth feel. Did I over compensate and add too much gelatin this time? Quite possibly. Even after cutting out a second slice, my aspic showed no signs of structural failure.

A bite of the Ceasar aspic. Photo: C. Hagemoen
A bite of the Caesar aspic. Photo: C. Hagemoen

The question is then do I want to eat a Bloody Caesar, or drink one? I think the latter is my preference.

I think I might make this recipe again (with slightly less gelatin) if I ever was invited (or hosted) a retro cocktail party. Otherwise, in the future, I think I will give molded gelatin salads a pass. For historical culinary context, I’m glad I tried making molded gelatin salads. However, I think they are best left alone in the annals of gastronomy.

If anyone out there has successfully made and enjoyed a molded gelatin salad, I would love to hear about it.







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