Several years ago my mother had a four-day house party during which she served an almost exclusively gelatin-based menu. I don't think it was on purpose; she just wanted to make everything in advance so she could spend as much time as possible with her friends. But by the end of the second day, when the guests had already consumed a crabmeat mousse, a strawberry mousse, two kinds of tomato aspic, and a charlotte russe, one complained that he could not get up from the table. "I think," he said, "my blood has coagulated."
None of the rest of us saw anything funny about the food. This was in the Mississippi Delta, after all, where congealed items are a staple of our diets. In Gourmet of the Delta, a cookbook put together by the region's Episcopal churchwomen, there are seventy salad recipes, and fifty-one of them contain gelatin; in The Memphis Cook Book, twenty-three of the thirty-three salads are congealed. I didn't even bother to count the desserts. We congeal everything. Instead of serving Smithfield ham with hot mustard, we serve it with a shimmering hot mustard mousse. Rare roast beef gets horseradish mousse sliced and stacked with the beef on homemade yeast rolls. For hors d'oeuvres, we would rather offer a molded Roquefort ring (Roquefort, chopped pecans, cream, and cream cheese) thanmere Roquefort. Then there are the endless variations on tomato aspic, including my favorite--tomato soup aspic, a Junior League cookbook perennial made with canned tomato soup, mayonnaise, cream cheese, and sliced green olives.
I had always assumed that the Southerner's proclivity toward anything made with gelatin derived from the heat. All those smooth and glistening aspics and mousses would have provided cool relief. In fact, it wasn't until the advent of refrigeration that we could enjoy them during most of the year. "Jellies should never be made in hot weather," Marion Cabell Tyree warns in Housekeeping in Old Virginia, published in 1879. In Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, published in 1913, Martha McCulloch-Williams describes a typical wedding menu, adding that in cold weather, wine jelly "took the place of syllabub."
It turns out that our fondness for jelled foods comes from the British, who began making molded "jellies" as early as medieval times, when artistic cooks decorated them with edible gold and silver. Techniques for making them weren't perfected until toward the end of the eighteenth century when they became symbols of sophistication and status. No wonder. To make them was such a long and tedious process, only the wealthy could afford it. First, calves' feet and knuckles or hartshorn (deer antlers) were simmered in water for hours and allowed to cool, leaving a translucent jelly on the top. The jelly was further reduced by boiling, clarified with egg whites, and flavored with everything from fruit and wine or cream to ground meat or nuts. A typical example is "The Duchess of Montague's Receipt for Hartshorn Jelly" from an eighteenth-century manuscript found at Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire. In it, the cook is advised to "put in one gallon of water half a pound of Hartshorn. Let them boyl slowly till the Liquor is a prettystrong Jelly, then strain it off and put in ... the peel of eight oranges and four lemons, cut very thin, boyl it a quarter of an hour, then put in the whites of 12 eggs ... the Juice of the Oranges and Lemons, and a pound and a quarter of double refined Sugar, boyl it a little and then strain it through a Flannell Bagg."
In Colonial America, gelatin was not such an indicator of class. In her cookbook, Tyree points out that it was easy for "country housekeepers in particular to make this sort of jelly, as the materials generally are within their reach." Isinglass, a jelling agent made from the air bladders of sturgeon was also popular, and by the 1860s, some crude commercial gelatins (sold in paper-thin "leaves") were available. Tyree was partial to Cox's Sparkling Gelatin, and included it in recipes for blanc mange, Bavarian cream, charlotte russe, "meat jelly for boned turkey," and "lemon froth." However, Isinglass required almost as much boiling and straining as calves' feet and hartshorn, and the early leaf gelatin was not always foolproof. Finally, in 1890 the process for making granulated commercial gelatin was perfected by Charles Knox, a fact that made him so rich he bought the famous racehorse Anaconda and gave him the unfortunate new moniker "Gelatine King."
While gelatin is defined in The New Food Lover's Companion as "pure protein derived from beef and veal bones, cartilage, tendons, and other tissue," most commercial gelatin today is a by-product of pigskin. This information must be startling to those vegetarians who ingest commercial ice cream, yogurt, gummy bears, and the hundreds of other prepared foods containing gelatin, not to mention the "gel caps" that encase an increasing number of over-the-counter medicines. Since I am not a vegetarian I am grateful for those handy quarter-ounce envelopes of instant gelatin. My friends and I spent much of our teen years drinking dissolved Knoxstraight out of a glass in an effort to make our hair shiny and our nails strong. (These days there is a product called Knox for Nails.) But my devotion to Knox reached its apex just a few years ago, after I'd apparently lost my mind and tried jelling something the old-fashioned way.
I was in Bath, England, for the summer and in charge of organizing an enormous picnic to take to a country-house cricket match. One of the guests was originally from New Orleans and her favorite thing in life is daube glacé, a highly seasoned beef stew that is jellied and molded in a loaf pan. Served on crusty French bread with lots of homemade mayonnaise, it makes an extremely upscale and delicious New Orleans roast beef po'boy sandwich, and I was determined to show the Brits a thing or two. Maybe it was the English damp, or maybe it was all the hours of mind-numbing cricket I'd been forced to watch. At any rate I forgot all about Mr. Knox and followed the only recipe I could find in the Bath bookstore, which included plenty of calves' feet and veal knuckles but no granulated gelatin. It didn't work. After about eight hours of simmering and two days of refrigeration it ended up a sort of glutinous beef soup, which I finally heated up and served over noodles the day after the picnic.
I have since learned to forgo the animal parts and add four envelopes of gelatin (one envelope usually will jell about two cups of liquid). Now that I have perfected my daube glacé I intend to serve it at my own next house party, where I'll have no qualms about thickening the blood of my guests. Over the course of the weekend I'll probably also offer a tomato aspic ring filled with lump crabmeat or a curried rice salad, a boozy charlotte russe with homemade ladyfingers, Julia Child's divine chicken mousse with foie gras and truffles, and maybe even some wine jelly, although that is mostoften served during the Christmas holidays, in keeping with its original seasonal roots.
While I cook, I'll entertain myself by listening to Rogers and Hart--specifically "I Wish I Were in Love Again," surely the only song ever written that successfully incorporates the verb "congeal" into its lyrics. "When love congeals," Lorenz Hart wrote in one of his archer moments, "it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals." I will also raise a glass to the rather gauche Mr. Knox, whose gelatin has no aroma whatsoever, and when it congeals the result is not dull or disastrous, as in the song, but shimmering and divine.
YIELD: 8 TO 10 SERVINGS
1/2 cup milk 2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin 4 cups heavy cream 11/2 cups sugar 5 eggs, separated 1/2 cup bourbon or brandy
Place the milk in a small saucepan and sprinkle with the gelatin. Set aside for 5 minutes to soften, then heat over low heat until dissolved. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, beat the cream with 1 cup of the sugar until firm peaks form when the beaters are raised. Set aside.
Place the egg yolks in a large bowl and gradually beat in remaining sugar. Beat at high speed for several minutes, until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Stir in the gelatin and bourbon. With a rubber spatula, fold in one-fourth of the whipped cream to lighten the mixture; then fold in the remaining whipped cream.
In another large bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form when the beaters are raised; fold into the cream mixture. Line an 8-cup charlotte mold or a deep glass bowl with ladyfingers (preferably homemade), spoon in the cream mixture, and chill until set.
YIELD: ABOUT 30 LADYFINGERS
1 tablespoon softened butter 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 3 eggs, separated 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract Pinch of salt 2/3 cup sifted all-purpose flour ¾ cup confectioners' sugar, in a shaker or sieve
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, or butter two baking sheets, dust with the 2 tablespoons flour, and shake off the excess.
Place the egg yolks in a 3-quart mixing bowl and gradually beat in the granulated sugar at high speed, until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Beat in the vanilla.
In a medium bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form when the beaters are raised. Scoop a fourth of the egg whites onto the egg-yolk mixture. Using a sifter or sieve, sift a fourth of the flour on top, and with a rubber spatula, fold the ingredients until partly blended. Repeat until all the egg whites are incorporated, but don't try to blend the mixture too thoroughly (the batter should remain light and puffy).
Using a spoon or pastry bag, spread or pipe the batter in 4 by 11/2-inch strips spaced 1 inch apart onto the prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.
Bake the ladyfingers in the middle and upper third of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until very pale brown and slightly crusty on the outside. Remove immediately from the baking sheets and cool on a rack.
Adapted from The Plantation Cookbook, by the Junior League of New Orleans
YIELD: 10 TO 12 SERVINGS OR 40 TO 48 HORS D'OEUVRES
4 pounds boneless beef chuck roast Salt Freshly ground black pepper 3 tablespoons bacon grease or olive oil 4 cups dark veal stock 1/2 cup dry red wine 1/2 cup brandy 3 onions, peeled and sliced 3 carrots, peeled and sliced 1 cup chopped celery 8 garlic cloves, peeled 8 sprigs flat-leaf parsley 5 bay leaves 12 whole cloves, crushed 2 teaspoons whole white peppercorns 1 teaspoon dried thyme 1 teaspoon whole allspice 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 cup water 4 envelopes (4 tablespoons) unflavored gelatin 2 tablespoons salt 5 tablespoons lemon juice 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
Dry the meat with paper towels and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. In a large, heavy-bottom casserole, heat the bacon grease till smoking; sear the meat on all sides. Remove the meat; pour out the grease.
Return the meat to the casserole; add the veal stock, wine, brandy, vegetables, and spices. Cover, and heat the liquid to simmering over medium-low heat. Reduce the heat to very low, cover, and simmer for 3 hours, turning the meat if it's not completely submerged.
Remove the meat to a bowl; let stand till cool.
Trim the fat from the meat, and cut the meat into a 1/2-inch dice. Oil two 11/2-quart loaf pans and spread half of the meat in each pan.
Pour the stock through a cheesecloth-lined strainer over a large bowl and skim off the fat. Set the stock aside.
Place 1 cup water in a small saucepan and sprinkle with the gelatin. Set aside for 5 minutes to soften, then heat over low heat until dissolved. Stir into the reserved stock. Add 2 tablespoons salt, the lemon juice, Worcestershire, and Tabasco; stir well and pour over the meat. Refrigerate till the stock is set.
To serve, remove any fat from the top of the jellied stock and unmold each loaf onto a serving platter. Slice with a sharp knife that has been dipped in hot water. For hors d'oeuvres, cut into small squares and serve on thin baguette slices with Creole mustard or homemade mayonnaise.
HAM BISCUITS, HOSTESS GOWNS, AND OTHER SOUTHERN SPECIALTIES. Copyright © 2008 by Julia Reed. All rights reserved. . For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.