I was 12 years old, and had traveled with my little sister, all by ourselves, to Annapolis to spend a week with my Grandfather. Granddad, a retired Rear-Admiral in the U.S. Navy, was a loveable but formidable character, a southern gentleman with very specific ideas of how ladies should conduct themselves in public. He had the idea that his daughter, my mother, was raising us with very little couth. We had given him plenty of reasons to think so, and my mother was bearing the brunt of it.
But I was able to reverse this notion just a bit one day at an officerís club, when I impressed him by ordering beef aspic as an appetizer. I had no idea at all what I was ordering. (We had been encouraged to order things we didnít understand so we could find out what it was.)
I was astonished to be served what looked like cubes of brown finger Jell-O. It was, in fact, gelled beef broth. I popped one perfectly clear, cold cube into my mouth, and the intense, salty, distilled beef flavor filled my entire head so thoroughly and delightfully I can remember it perfectly more than 30 years later.
And thatís the first time I realized that you can gel more than Jell-O.
Not that thereís anything wrong with Jell-O, mind you. But these days Iím avoiding sugar and avoiding artificial sweeteners. And yet, I like gelled stuff.
I like Gel molds. I like to make sheets of highly gelled things to slice into interesting shapes and strips. I like layering different colors of gelled stuff and then slicing through it to make pretty little snacks that are high in protein, low in calories, not-too-filling, delicious, pretty.
So what can you gel? Beef broth. Chicken broth. Seafood broth. Vegetable broth. Tea. Herbal infusions. Milk. Cream. Wine. Juice. Beer. Sweeten things with Stevia if you want sweet. Cook things first, because fruit enzymes tend to break gelatins down. Use citrus oils, candy flavorings and extracts to give your brews intensity. Use food coloring if you want, or color your brews using natural dyes like blueberry and cherry and onion skins, or saffron or turmeric.
You can gel things using unflavored gelatin, purchasable in powder or leaves. Use 1 tablespoon of gelatin powder (or four leaves) to gel 2 cups of liquid. Gelatin is made from animal bones and tissues. So vegetarians prefer Agar Agar, available in powdered form at health food stores. Use 2 teaspooons of agar powder to gel 2 cups of liquid.
The process is the same regardless of your gelling agent. Heat your liquid to just barely boiling, flavor it with any sweeteners or oils, add the gelling agent, stir to dissolve, and then place the liquid in your mold or pan for cooling. From there you can unmold it or work with it (using cookie cutters, knives, scoops) to create your gel art.
Make layers by letting one liquid gel completely in your pan or mold before adding the next liquid. You may want to let the second liquid cool quite a bit before adding it to the pan. Be careful when working with Agar Agar, which can set at room temperature.
Hereís a recipe pretty enough for any company you might have over:
Gelled Tea with Milk
Brew 2 cups of green tea, using twice the amount of tea you usually would, but steeping just as long (donít let it get bitter!). Bring the brewed tea to barely a boil, then remove from heat. Add 2 tsp. Stevia powder and 1 T. unflavored gelatin OR 2 tsp. agar powder. Stir until the gelling agent dissolves. Pour into a small loaf pan and chill overnight.
The next day do the same with lemon verbena tea, but add 1/4 cup of milk to lighten the tea after brewing and before boiling. After adding the Stevia and gelling agent, let the mixture cool quite a bit (but donít let it set completely). Pour only 1 and 1/2 cups of this mixture over the gelled green tea. (We want different thicknesses in the layers. You can chill the rest of the lemon verbena mixture in a cup for this eveningís snack. Chill again overnight.
The third day, bring 1 cup of half-and-half or milk or skim milk to just bubbling, add 1/2 tsp. Stevia powder and half the amount of gelling agent. Let cool, and pour over the gelled lemon verbena.
On the fourth day, set the loaf pan in hot water for a moment and then turn it out onto a plate. Cut fat slices of this lovely, low calorie, sugarless treat to serve to your friends. A hot knife will cut prettier slices. A fresh strawberry sliced beside it would really be lovely. Or maybe a just-opened pansy or two?
When the flowers and herbs bloom, consider adding pansies to the gelatin, or basil leaves, lemon thyme, lavender petals?
Experiment with your gels, kids. Something wonderful will come to you. When you hit on something fantastic, share the recipies!