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Oh, Gel!

August 08, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Poor gelatin! It's made from bones, and knowing that, we can't quite love it. Not to mention the fact that its most common manifestation is as an artificially flavored, luridly colored vehicle for sugar.

Jiggly, viscous, unaccountably echoing something physiological (what, exactly, we can't quite say), gelatin, especially in its non-dessert forms, repels as ardently as it attracts.

Then again, many of the world's delicacies challenge our more puritanical acculturations and taboos, confront us with willfully suppressed knowledge. Caviar is fish eggs, after all, and foie gras the liver of force-fed geese; the best cheese often harbors some form of rot. And consider the living oyster.

A friend once ordered a plate of three fish salads. When they appeared, three quivering thimbles of different jellied seafoods, she turned green at her own gills and would not so much as touch them.

And yet gelatin blooms throughout our food supply in many subtle guises: the crummy coffee-shop cheesecake, the glaze on a fresh peach pie, the pricey salmon terrine, the clear, glassy varnish on pa^te.

Jell-O started selling flavored gelatin in 1897; Knox first sold plain gelatin in 1889. Before that, writes Richard Sax in his "Classic Home Desserts," gelatin was rendered at home from calves' or pigs' feet or hartshorn (shaved stag horns). After many hours of slow simmering and reduction, the resulting viscous liquid was strained through cloth and used to make "jellies."

In medieval times, jellies were simultaneously flavored with fruit and meat. Not until the 16th century were sweet and savory jellies made distinct from one another. (Sorry, I'm just telling you what I read.)

Today, so many centuries later, gelatin has vast range. It's used in aspic; terrines; sweet and savory mousses and mousselines; in molded salads and fruit whips; in snows and puddings; in Bavarian and other molded cream custards; in charlottes, chiffon pies, cheesecakes, parfaits; in the almond-thickened blancmange, the pure white panna cotta; in sponges, flummeries, wine jellies; in the supreme rice pudding riz a l'imperatrice; in chaud-froid sauces; in the pliable mayonnaise collee; in whipped creams stiffened for decorative purposes. Creative drinkers use gelatin to carry and disguise alcoholic beverages. (Jell-O made with vodka is 40% to 50% proof.)

Other substances gel food as well as processed bones. Isinglass, a pure form of gelatin, is extracted from the swim bladders of sturgeon and other fish. Various processed seaweeds, including agar-agar and Irish moss (carrageen), work perfectly well, although less refined forms may impart a weedy flavor.

As for the technique . . . well, sturdy old Jell-O is easy to make. Just be sure to dissolve the powder thoroughly in water right at boiling, have ready a level, cleared spot in your refrigerator and allow enough time for the stuff to set.

Working with unflavored gelatin can be trickier and immeasurably more rewarding. I vividly remember the first gelatin mold I made from scratch. I used cloudy, unfiltered apple juice, a squeeze of lemon, fresh peaches, cantaloupe and banana.

The finished product--a slick, wobbly, mouse-brown ring with orange fruit peeking out--held no visual charm, but the cold, cloudy liquid had become a soft, delicate substance, the fruit was chilled and ripe, and somehow, the molded salad had acquired an exquisite, perfumed edge not found in any individual ingredient. Flavor and texture were strangely beguiling, like something well-meaning aliens might spoon into your mouth to revive you after abduction.

In other words, the finished product tasted better than any of its parts, which is precisely the reason to make such a gelatin. It might even explain why homemakers of yore used to stir pots of hooves and knuckles forever and a day.

As it happens, the unusual enhanced flavor of my gelatin turned out to be fleeting. The next day, the same mold tasted--well, like a diluted form of Jell-O. The virtues of gelatins from scratch, I've learned, are perishable.

This is doubly true with gelatins made with carbonated liquids. Ginger ale gelatin has the most delightful, suspended fizziness when consumed shortly after it has set. The next day, it will be as flat as tap water.

Further experience has proven that gelatin mutes flavors in general, so it's best to start with highly flavored juices. (No wonder Jell-O has resorted to indestructible artificial flavorings.)

After that first scratch gelatin, I made a lot more. Sweet and/or savory, fruit or meat-based--if it was liquid, I was willing to turn it into a solid.

I was in my mid-20s, my boyfriend's mother had just given me a copy of the "The Joy of Cooking" and, as I was reading along, I came to the sentence, "Sometimes it is rewarding--and fun--to make an aspic without added gelatin."

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