Thursday, 13 September 2012

Elephant No. 347: Jellies

Some of my friends and family view gelatin desserts with fear and loathing, but I kind of like them. I don't really care for things like lime gelatin with shredded cabbage in it, and tomato aspic will never knowingly pass these lips again, but regular fruit flavours—even with fruit in them—are something I don't mind in the least.

Gelatin is made, rather revoltingly, from collagen that is extracted from the bones, connective tissues and intestines of animals. These are boiled down and clarified, and in modern times, the final result is dried and powdered.

Gelatin for desserts was popularized in Georgian and Victorian England, when confectioners produced dazzling jelly desserts, usually in large moulds. At the time, gelatin was sold in sheets and, before it could be used, had to be purified. This time-consuming process meant that gelatin desserts were usually only served in wealthy households.

Victorian jelly mould featuring a lion.

In 1845, American industrialist Peter Cooper was granted a patent for gelatin powder. Some forty years later, the formula was sold to Pearle Wait, an American carpenter and cough-syrup manufacturer. Wait and his wife May added lemon, orange, raspberry and strawberry flavourings to the powdered gelatin, and in 1897 gave it the name "Jell-O".

The Waits were unable to successfully market their invention, so in 1897 they sold the business to their neighbour Orator Francis Woodward for $450. Woodward and his Genesee Pure Food Company also struggled in the early years to sell the product. In 1902, he decided to take out ads in the Ladies Home Journal magazine, claiming that Jell-O was "America's Most Famous Dessert". He was stretching the truth, to say the least, and Jell-O remained a minor success for a few more years.

In 1904, however, the Genesee Pure Food Company sent out a massive salesforce, whose representatives distributed free Jell-O cookbooks. At the time, it was an unusual technique, but it worked. Within ten years, new flavours had been added, and Jell-O had been launched in Canada. The brand also acquired celebrity testimonials and recipes, including one featuring Ethel Barrymore. Some ads were even illustrated by artist Maxfield Parrish.

Jell-O advertisement, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, 1921.

In 1923, the company launched a version with artificial sweetener, known as "D-zerta", and by 1927, the Genesee company had merged with the Postum cereal company and Birdseye frozen foods to form the General Foods Corporation. By the early 1930s, American cuisine had come to embrace the idea of jellied salads, prompting the company to introduce lime Jell-O, which was thought to complement the types of things that were added to aspics and salads. They even introduced savoury flavours such as seasoned tomato, celery and Italian. These have since been discontinued.

In 1934, comedian Jack Benny became the spokesman for Jell-O, and the J-E-L-L-O five-note jingle—still in use today—was created by the advertising agency Young & Rubicam. Over the next several decades, gelatin desserts grew in popularity, largely because they were quick to prepare, and were actually a reasonable source of protein.

Advertisement for Jell-O Freezing Mix, featuring Jack Benny, ca. 1935–1940.

Between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, sales of gelatin desserts declined. Taking a proactive approach to this downturn, Jell-O's parent company—now Kraft Foods, following another merger—revisited earlier recipes, and came up with new ways to use gelatin dessert mixes, from firm snacks like "Jell-O Jigglers" (which is what I made today), to "sparkling" Jell-O made with carbonated drinks, to elaborate desserts and cakes. Others have added to the repertoire with the alcohol-laced "jello shot".

Today, the Jell-O brand alone sells about 300 million boxes in the United States each year. Many other companies around the world also produce flavoured gelatin, often in exotic flavours. In my own neighbourhood, there are Chinese groceries that sell gelatin powder in mango, lychee, green tea, rose, and hold-your-nose durian.

Typical savoury gelatin salad, staple of many family reunions and social gatherings.

Gelatin desserts are very simple to prepare. All you need is boiling water to dissolve the powder, an equal amount of cold water, and a container or mould of some sort. You also need time: it takes about eight hours to set the gelatin in a mould or bowl to reasonable firmness. To keep gelatin firm, it should be kept refrigerated, as heat will generally cause it to "melt".

Gelatin dessert mixes can accommodate a wide range of additives, from cabbage and fruit, to bizarre objects such as staplers and nuts and bolts. It can be layered, moulded, whipped, frozen, carved and cut. There are really only two things to worry about when playing with gelatin. The first is making sure that you don't inadvertently add extra liquid. The second is that, because gelatin is protein-based, you can't add foods containing enzymes that break down protein. These include fresh pineapple, papaya, kiwi and ginger root.

By the way, "Jell-O" is a brand name, although it's also become something of a generic term. Out of respect for trademarks, however, I've used "gelatin dessert" in this blog. Even though I mostly used actual Jell-O for today's blog activity.

For today's elephant, I made an extra-firm version of gelatin dessert, using about one-quarter the water. Although I've never tried this, it supposedly makes the resulting gelatin firm enough to pick up with your hands.

I didn't really use a recipe for this, except to note that you use only one-third to one-quarter of the water the box calls for. You also use only boiling water to dissolve the powder, and no cold water at all.

Because I wanted a rainbow of colours in my final jellies, I bought six "colours" of gelatin powder: red, orange, warm yellow, green, blue and purple.

I boiled some water, and dissolved each powder.

I had decided to make two types of jellies: the kind that are cut from a sheet of gelatin with a cookie cutter, and little moulded animals. For the moulded version, I used the candy moulds I'd used to make elephant chocolates months ago. These also feature Bactrian camels and hippos, so I'd end up with ten moulds of each animal when I was done, since I planned to fill them all.

This used up far less of the gelatin than I thought it would, so I pulled out several cookie sheets. Unfortunately, one four-serving package isn't enough to fill a cookie sheet, so I blended a couple of colours/flavours on some of the sheets.

I then left everything to set for several hours.

When I went to unmould things, it was so chaotic and awful that it ended up being hysterically funny. Some of the powders didn't really jell very well, so they couldn't be cut with a cookie cutter. As for the little bits in the mould, while they looked pretty, they wouldn't come out of the mould intact. In some sources it suggests spraying the mould with cooking spray first, but unmoulding should work just with hot water, so that's what I tried.

For the moulds, I tested the camels first, but I couldn't make them come out intact, no matter what I tried. I put the moulds in hot water for about 15 seconds, which is the recommended time, but that only made them too soft to slide out. I tried chilling them again, thinking that this would make them more solid and easier to peel out. That didn't work either.

Next, I actually put one set of moulds in the freezer for 15 minutes. I didn't want it to form ice crystals, because I've found in the past that freezing breaks down the gelatin. But I thought that, if they were extra cold, they might slide out well when placed briefly in hot water.

I discoverd that freezing, even briefly, turns gelatin desserts into a kind of paste that is even less firm than the refrigerated version. I put them back into the freezer, thinking that I might be able to turn them into ice cubes that I could unmould. The answer is no, I couldn't. I finally gave up on the idea of pretty little moulded jellies.

I turned my attention now to the cookie sheets. I dipped each cookie sheet in warm water, then used a smallish cookie cutter. To lift the individual elephants, I used a cake lifter, which worked fairly well to separate the elephants from the larger mass. They were all, however, a little raggedy at the edges. I don't know if it was the plastic cookie cutter in lieu of metal, or if I needed to do something differently. Oh well.

I honestly had visions of lovely jewel-like jellies from today's activity, but I ended up with a plate of strangely-coloured elephants that were also not as firm as I'd expected and somewhat misshapen from the removal process. And I was deeply disappointed by the little moulded ones. I've seen pictures of beautiful little moulded beans and Easter eggs, so I have no idea what went wrong. I can't imagine you would add even less water, as the amount of water I used barely dissolved the powder.

In the end, it didn't really matter. This was a bit like a science experiment for me, and now I know that it's not something I need to try again. And, despite a sticky rainbow-hued kitchen, I still don't hate gelatin dessert. But I don't think I'll make a bowl of the stuff again anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
This rather endearing story comes from southern India and the Arignar Anna Zoological Park
Starting in late 2009, the zoo began rescuing orphaned elephant calves from nearby forests. Because orphaned elephants need a great deal of care and affection, mahouts and their children began caring for the elephants around the clock. 

The bond between the children and the orphaned calves has been particularly strong. The elephants shower with the children, play soccer with them, and even take them to school. The youngest elephants will also only go to sleep when the children snuggle up to them and rub their backs.

The day starts with the elephant's morning bath, during which the children scrub down their charges. The elephants actually come to the pool on the dot of 7:00 a.m. for their baths, where they wait for the children. The children generally get a soaking as well, particularly from 14-month-old Urigam, who likes to grab a bucket of water and pour it over his favourite child, Lavindya.
Breakfast comes next, with the children helping to feed the orphans a blend of milk, coconut water, and glucose. During the day, the adult mahouts feed the elephants watermelon, bananas and sugarcane as well, to help build up their strength.

There is no schoolbus for these young children, so when it is time to go to school, they hop onto the backs of the elephants. The elephants even carry the children's schoolbags and lunch containers in their trunks. 
Nandini and Lavindya ride home from school on Sharon, 2010.
Photo: © Barcroft

After school, the elephants play soccer with the children. Sometimes the elephants even run through the village with the children, either chasing them or playing tag.

Zoo staff firmly believe that, without this friendship and love, the orphaned elephants would likely have died soon after their rescue.

Although the zoo is funded by Government of India, the zoo is currently raising funds to build a rehabilitation centre for a growing number of orphaned calves. More and more calves have become separated from their parents in recent years, often due to the killing of their parents by trains, vehicles or poachers. Others simply get lost and divided from the herd. The first of the zoo's orphaned elephants was found simply wandering on her own in the forest, with no adults anywhere in the area.

Nangopal and Lavindya napping with the elephant calf Giri, 2010.
Photo: © Barcroft


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