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There are some things you only do around the holidays: Watch 187 hours of a crackling fireplace on TV, decorate with big socks, and send actual mail, with stamps and everything. It’s a special time of year! A time for nostalgia and a dash of absurdity, which is why it’s gelatin’s time to shine, or jiggle. In a season stuffed with literal stuffing along with the heaviest, richest foods, gelatin-based desserts offer a light and dissolvable respite. They’re refreshing! And they have a novelty quality that’s endearing, like a bad holiday rom-com you can’t help but love. You don’t have to make the canned-tuna–haunted gelatin salads of the dusty past, either. There are plenty of modern, simple recipes that I hope jiggle their way into your heart, as they did mine. Here are my favorites.
Retro Strawberries-and-Cream Pretzel Tart
I recently made this tart from cookbook author Andrea Slonecker and not only was it beautiful, but my friends were shocked at how ingenious the layers are at balancing Jell-O’s one-of-a-kind texture. The bottom is crushed pretzels mixed with melted butter and brown sugar, baked until golden. From there, you do a layer of cream cheese combined with whipped cream, arrange strawberries on that, and then pour strawberry Jell-O on top. After a few hours in the fridge, it’s set — and stunning. The pretzel crust is crunchy and salty, giving way to the creamy layer, which both offset the sweetness of the Jell-O–entombed berries. It’s hard not to take a photo of every slice.
Pumpkin Spice Pudding
This recipe is like eating pumpkin pie filling without having to bake a pie, and I’ve riffed on it twice this fall already (I love it as a lunch dessert). Here’s my version: Heat 1½ cups whole milk in a medium saucepan until it simmers, then turn off the heat and whisk in a 3.4 oz. package of vanilla pudding and 2 Tbsp. brown sugar. Then whisk in half of a can of pumpkin purée (7.5 ounces, but you can be imprecise here) and a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice — or if you’re me, a dash or three of ground ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Let it chill in a food storage container for an hour or more. To serve, you could dollop whipped cream and crushed graham crackers on top, which would be lovely. I eat it straight from the container.
Exactly what it sounds like, gelatina mosaico, also known as broken glass Jell-O or stained glass Jell-O, uses multiple flavors of the jiggly stuff to create an artful little snack. The base is a creamy gelatin with the rich flavor of sweetened condensed milk. In the fabulous cookbook from blogger Chicano Eats, there’s a version with a cinnamon milky gelatin base I’ve been known to make on its own because I like it so much. For the holidays, you could choose lime and strawberry Jell-O to color coordinate with your ugly sweaters.
Champagne Jello Shots
I’m not a Jell-O shot person, but there’s something about these Champagne Jell-O shots from blogger Broma Bakery that makes me wonder if maybe I am, after all? They sparkle! The flavor is lemony and bright without being too boozy, and you can choose your own sprinkle adventure, or even dust the gelatin mixture with edible gold, if you have it on hand (casual). These would be so fun to make ahead for a New Year’s Eve party, and unlike other Jell-O shots, won’t stain your lips an embarrassing shade of Red 40.
Eggnog Panna Cotta
This recipe from Martha Stewart is as classic and classy as she is. I also think this panna cotta is a great way to transform eggnog’s cozy flavor into an even better texture (drinking thick milk is fun too, I guess). Eggnog gets thinned out with milk, then set with gelatin, and sprinkled with nutmeg to serve. Easy. Rewarding. Deceptively fancy.
Japanese Coffee Jelly
You know how people have a coffee after dinner? Change it up this year and serve Japanese coffee jelly instead (in some cute vintage ice cream coupes, ideally). I riff on the recipe from Rie McClenny’s great new cookbook, Make It Japanese: Bloom a packet of gelatin in 2 Tbsp. of water, let it set while you make 16 oz. of hot coffee, mixing in 2 Tbsp. sugar until dissolved. Whisk the gelatin mixture into the coffee and stash in the fridge in an 8x8 brownie pan to set, around three hours, then cut into cute cubes. For the holidays, serve with a drizzle of eggnog on top — or Bailey’s.
Cranberry Chiffon Pie
This King Arthur pie is one of my favorite Thanksgiving desserts. When you want that custardy cloud texture of a pumpkin chiffon pie but are more of a sour-tart person, it’s the one. Gelatin helps set the cranberry curd filling, making every bite light and airy. (I’m also a sucker for sugar-dusted cranberries as garnish — little rubies!). Instead of a graham cracker crust — though you can definitely do that instead — there’s a buttery rye crust that has a nice toasty flavor. The filling is unabashedly labor intensive, as you’re making a homemade cranberry curd and folding it with meringue, but around the holidays, I’ll pull out all the stops, plus you can make this ahead so easily.
Lazy Banana Pudding
The secret to New York’s famous Magnolia banana pudding is in the wide open now. The secret is vanilla pudding mix. You can make the recipe from the bakery, but I have an even more shortcut version that does the trick with less fuss, and the results you want: airy pudding, Nilla wafers that turn to soft cake, and just enough banana. Heat 1 cup of whole milk in a small saucepan until it barely begins to simmer, then turn off the heat and whisk in 1 3 oz. package of vanilla pudding, then whisk in around 8 oz. of sweetened condensed milk (half a can, I used a little less and it turned out great). In a stand mixer, whisk 1 cup of heavy whipping cream into stiff peaks, then mix in ¼ cup of sour cream (or mascarpone to be fancy). Pour the vanilla pudding mixture into the whipped cream bowl and use a spatula to fold them together. Then grab a brownie, cake, or roasting pan and dump a short layer of pudding in to get started. Top that with a layer of Nilla wafers, then a sliced banana, and continue with more pudding, then more Nilla wafers, a second banana, and top with more pudding. Let it chill overnight so the wafers really soften.
Any Fruit Fluff Your Heart Desires
This is the throwback Jell-O you love to hate, or love to love, if you’re me. It ain’t pretty. It looks like what I imagine unicorn puke would look like — unnaturally pink, studded with marshmallows and dreams. (Some people make it with cottage cheese!) You can make it with any Jell-O + fruit combination your heart desires, but I love strawberry or raspberry. Before you do anything, thaw an 8 oz. container of whipped topping and don’t even ask about using freshly whipped cream (fine, you can). Combine 1 8 oz. box of raspberry Jell-O with 1 box of vanilla (or white chocolate, if you can find it) pudding in a mixing bowl, and whisk in 1 cup of boiling water, then ½ cup room temp water, and move it in the fridge to set for 20 minutes. While that’s setting, chop a pound of strawberries, or wash and dry your raspberries. Fold the fruit, whipped topping, and 2 cups of mini marshmallows into the pudding, breaking it up so it’s got that, shall we say signature look, then chill for two hours.
Elf On a Jell-O Shelf
For an extra festive treat, follow the instructions to make a turkey roasting pan’s worth of strawberry Jell-O (approximately 48 packages, sorry). Arrange your elf in the roasting pan, and as you make the Jell-O (try doing 8 packages at a time in a mixing bowl), pour each mixture into the pan until the elf is submerged. Ideally, do all of this while the rest of your family is asleep so they don’t know what you’re up to. Let chill overnight and leave somewhere in the house — um, maybe the bathtub — for your kid or partner to find when they least suspect it. Happy holidays!
PHOTO CREDIT: Illustrations by Vonik Design