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Gelatin gets the jiggle back on Add to ...

When Suzie Ridler was a child, her mother folded gelatin into whipping cream and strawberries to create a mousse that would make her weak in the knees.

The resulting pink cloud was airy, slightly wobbly and, at the time, Ms. Ridler's favourite food in the world.

That was in the 1970s. But lately, Ms. Ridler has rediscovered her childhood taste for gelatin. She's been playing around with grape-flavoured packages to make intense, nearly black Jell-O shots suitable for Halloween, revisiting old-school favourites such as the classic orange jelly mould crowned with mandarin slices, and testing more sophisticated recipes, such as strawberry red-wine gelatin, peaches-and-cream panna cotta and gelatin-based mocha custards.

"That's the great thing about gelatin, it's fun with food, you know?" says Ms. Ridler, who lives on the outskirts of Halifax. "There's not many things that actually chemically change something into something else when it comes to texture, when it comes to viscosity and turning something into stained glass. There's something quite beautiful about it."

It's time to get jiggly because gelatin is back.

Moulded jelly rings and aspic salads, which died out with pineapple upside-down cakes and microwave cookbooks, are now being resurrected at dinner parties and barbecues. Experimental foodies and artists are at the forefront of gelatin's return, creating new flavours and building structural masterpieces with the congealing medium.

In July, gelatin found its way into The New York Times Magazine in recipes for spiced rosé gelatin with peaches and blueberry gelatin. Renowned chef Wylie Dufresne of New York's wd-50 restaurant dubbed gelatin his "holy grail" in the latest issue of Saveur magazine. And in June, Britain's experimental food artists Bompas & Parr released their book Jelly, complete with a brief history of gelled foods, recipes and photos of their stunning architectural gelatin towers, a replica of St. Paul's Cathedral and vibrant, jewel-like moulds.



"Part of gelatin's renewed popularity might have to do with the fact that it is relatively inexpensive and readily available," wrote Nadia Siddiqui and Michelle Zatta of the Gowanus Studio Space in Brooklyn, N.Y., in an e-mail.

For a second year in a row, the two organized the studio's Jell-O mould competition this summer, where art and culinary worlds collided. Artists, foodies and professional chefs pushed the limits of gelatin's finicky yet versatile properties, recreating apple pie, oysters and sculptures of the Virgin Mary in jellified form.

As an art medium, "many of gelatin's design properties can be applied to a broader cultural context," given the current state of the economy, Ms. Siddiqui and Ms. Zatta wrote. "Jell-O is springy, wobbly, durable, resilient - and at this point in time, it seems a lot of people are too."

Gelatin also has a modest comfort-food appeal, says Victoria Belanger, who blogs about her jelly creations as the Jell-O Mould Mistress of Brooklyn.

"It's a very Midwestern United States, back-to-basics, hometown American food kind of thing," she says. "… It can be very showy and fancy but then it's also thought of as being very simplistic."

Ms. Belanger, who is a photographer, says she never thought of herself as a foodie, but was suddenly "sucked into the foodie world on the Internet" after she began experimenting with gelatin moulds last year for fun.

"I was looking for a new hobby and I was looking for something different to bring to barbecues, parties and that sort of thing other than just wine or potato salad," she says.

She soon found she could do almost anything with gelatin, producing new shapes, colours and flavours, suspending fruit and piling on layers. As a bonus, she says, gelatin can hold alcohol well. Nearly half her recipes contain some sort of alcohol, yielding a more refined version of the Jell-O shot.

"It gives you a buzz and it still looks pretty and you don't feel trashy like you're at a frat party," she says.

Casey Grim of Austin, Tex., who started her own blog, the Modern Gelatina, in June inspired by Ms. Belanger's, agrees that gin-, rum- and vodka-laced jelly moulds are crowd-pleasers. Her favourite is a spicy, boozy, fig and cardamom cream with rum gelatin that she invented.

Unlike the gelatin dishes of the fifties, sixties and seventies, however, the new jelly revival isn't likely to involve canned tuna suspensions, processed meats and artificial flavourings.

Ms. Grim says she's swapped canned fruits and chemical flavouring with all fresh ingredients - fruits, juices and herbs such as mint, basil, thyme and rosemary. And she sticks to using it in dessert.

In fact, she says, "when I looked at [vintage]Jell-O cookbooks … personally, they don't look very appealing to me. They look kind of disgusting actually."

Beyond their applications of it, people's views of gelatin have also changed with the times, Ms. Siddiqui and Ms. Zatta say. It's no longer seen as a prestige ingredient that signifies possessing the technology and time to create elaborate moulds.

"The difference this time it seems, from our experience at least, is that people are experimenting more with how to use it, playing up its qualities as a design medium, rethinking the ways in which it can be presented and consumed," they said, adding that the possibilities seem endless. "There is a lot to explore."

Follow on Twitter: @wencyleung

 

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