It finally happened: I crossed the gelatin rubicon.
You know how Julie Powell (of Julie and Julia fame) flipped out when faced with cooking Julia Child’s aspic, a.k.a. meat jello (shudder)? That’s sort of how I felt when I first saw that there’s a whole section of gelatin-based dishes in Nonnie’s cookbook.
Almost all of them are desserts — save a truly horrific-sounding shrimp mold, which I intend to avoid for as long as possible — but that still didn’t quite ease my worries. I know that gelatin is a perfectly cromulent ingredient; I know that modern gastronomic types even champion it as the secret to everything from juicier meatballs to soft-serve.
And yet… gelatin is gross, guys. It’s “a translucent, colorless, brittle (when dry), flavorless food derived from collagen obtained from various animal by-products.”
Various animal by-products. Just like Grandma used to make.
So it was with great trepidation that I approached my first foray into gelatin. I wanted a light, fruit-centric dessert to go with a heavy meal of meat, cheese and red sauce (more on that later); a quick glance at the cookbook revealed that the only thing that kinda-sorta-maybe fit the bill was Nonnie’s Strawberries Bavarian, a mixture of strawberries and whipped cream that’s like a strawberry fool, but with extra structure provided by our good pal gelatin.
And you know what? It isn’t bad. Not the greatest, maybe, but certainly not bad, provided you like strawberries and whipped cream. (If you don’t, please close this tab immediately and never come back.)
Somehow I read “strawberries and whipped cream” and thought “hmm, I should make something creamy to put on top of this” — so I also tried my hand at making creme fraiche, a delicious homemade sour cream I will always associate with this episode of South Park. Making it was not, for me, an erotic experience, but it’s tasty enough that I can understand if that’s not the case for everyone.
Strawberry Bavarian; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 quart ripe strawberries or 2 packages frozen [I used two 10 oz. packages, because January in New York City is not a great place to find fresh strawberries]
1 cup superfine sugar, 1/2 cup with frozen strawberries [I suspect you could use the smaller amount with fresh strawberries, too; a cup seems like it’d make this awfully sweet]
Juice of one lemon
3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
2 cups whipping cream, whipped [Want to move from the hand-shaking method to whipping the cream with an actual mixer? If so, please make sure you’re using a bowl that’s deep enough to hold two cups of cream at once, with straight sides rather than wide ones. Otherwise, you risk turning your counters, your walls, and your arm into the lost works of Jackson Pollock.]
Put berries, sugar, and lemon juice in a food processor and puree. [This alone tastes delicious, by the way, and would be a great base for a popsicle.]
Pour 1/2 cup warm water into a sauce pan, sprinkle with gelatin, place over low heat, and stir until gelatin dissolves. [Pro tip: Try not to smell it. It doesn’t smell bad, per se, but it also doesn’t smell good. Also, don’t take “sprinkle” to mean “dump.” If you do, you’ll end up with weird little gelatin balls that refuse to dissolve without some serious elbow grease, like so:]
Combine gelatin mixture with berry and refrigerate until mixture will mound on a spoon. [I took that to mean it’d look like this:]
Fold in whipped cream and pour into a 6 cup mold. Refrigerate overnight or until firm. [“Firm” for me didn’t mean it had a texture like Jell-o; it ended up being more like a stiff whipped cream, airy but with enough structure that the rest of the dessert didn’t move when I scooped out servings.]
Creme Fraiche; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 cup whipping cream (do not use sterilized cream) [Extra explanation: Cream won’t thicken properly if it’s been ultra-pasteurized; the kind I got was just pasteurized, and it worked beautifully]
2 tablespoons buttermilk
Combine cream and buttermilk with sugar and nutmeg in a glass jar and whisk until blended. Cover and let stand at room temperature about 24 hours, whisking several times, until mixture thickens.
[Initially, I covered mine by screwing on the jar’s lid — but after reading up on creme fraiche, I learned that it’s better to let the cream breathe by making the jar a little paper towel headscarf. I did that after it had been sitting out for about 16 hours; it wasn’t very thick at all before I switched the jar lid for a paper towel, but at the 24 hour mark, it had thickened considerably. There’s no way to know whether I should thank the lid switch, or whether my kitchen was just cold enough to slow the process, but after a day, I finally had a stiff cream that wouldn’t run — and it got much, much thicker after being chilled:]
Chill thoroughly before using. Mixture will keep in refrigerator 10 days-2 weeks.
The verdict: The strawberry thing was light and refreshing; I think it’d be a lot better as a summer dish made with fresh strawberries rather than frozen, though. And maybe with whole strawberries, come to think of it, rather than blenderized ones. And with no gelatin. So… just as a bowl of strawberries and whipped cream, then.
Though the creme fraiche was totally superfluous, it was also absolutely delicious — and I can think of all kinds of other things to do with it now that I’ve got a jar that’ll keep for a few weeks.
The Bavarian, however, doesn’t have the same staying power. While it tasted fine the day after I made it, it had also started weeping, making for a pretty unattractive presentation:
Thankfully, there’s an easy solution to this issue. — so long as you don’t mind eating cold desserts in a snowstorm.