Eat This Drink: Bramble Jelly Shots
Though I came of age in the 1980s, I missed out completely on the whole Jell-O shot phenomenon. I, like most people, ticked it off as a vile ritual practiced by the orangey-tanned in beachfront bars, and shut the book. At the time I was trying to gain some semblance of what might pass for adult sophistication, not regression, in my drinking. Now that we all know high is low and sophistication may be disguised as pork belly sliders, I began a year or more ago considering the Jell-O shot as a Platonic concept pregnant with possibility.
People obviously love gelatin (and all its viscous cousins, like tapioca, agar, guar, locust bean and xantham gums and seaweed-based carageenan), as witnessed by the rampant popularity of Taiwanese bubble tea. Why couldn’t gelatin shots be made respectably, from classic or bespoke cocktails? Or conversely, why couldn’t serious cocktails be made cheeky by transforming them into well-done and thoughtful Jell-O shots? When I spoke to peers of this curiosity, however, I got nothing but pitiful smirks. If I did this by e-mail, sidebars would pop up offering me something called “party bomber shot cups.” Clearly, some initial concept P.R. work to do here.
If the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià creates an “olive” by mashing up olives, mixing them with some sodium alginate — a derivative of kelp — then dropping that in a calcium salt solution to form a jellylike skin around it, he is lauded as a genius. I’m not saying he’s not; I, for one, would love to have that deconstructed “olive” in my martini. But, pray, show me the real difference between the geléed “drinks” fobbed off in molecular mixology and the thoughtful transformation of a real cocktail into a gelatinized version? Why is sodium alginate and calcium chloride considered edgy and haute while gelatin is relegated to reality-television-contestant fare?
In tilting at this high/low conundrum, I uncovered a kindred spirit in Michelle Palm, a relentlessly energetic hedge fund consultant in Edina, Minn., who singlehandedly runs the addictive Web site Jelly Shot Test Kitchen. Her creations are wildly impressive and unapologetic. She uses the neutral term “jelly shot” both to distance herself from unsavory associations people may harbor from their formative experiences with liquor-infused gelatin, and because Jell-O is a trademarked product.
Her donning of the jelly shots spokeswoman tiara was, she says, completely serendipitous. “In the summer of 2009, I had to bring something to a friend’s barbecue,” Palm explains. “I thought of jelly shots, how cool that’d be, but there was nothing out there on the Web. I made piña colada jelly shots, and they were a huge hit. It all started there.” So successful has her site been that it almost immediately attracted a book deal;“Jelly Shot Test Kitchen: Jelling Classic Cocktails One Drink at a Time” is due to be released May 24 by Running Press.
I must temper my unabashed love of her site with the caveat that her recipes are at times perilously close to the lowest common denominator, leaning on questionables like bubble-gum-flavored vodka and using Jell-O itself, to make various fruited takes on “martinis” or “cosmos.” Of this, she cites the need, on the site only, for simple recipes that people anywhere can make without intimidation. The book, she says, will elevate the serious cocktail factor greatly.
Her inspiration emboldened me to blaze a new trail; raising the bar using sheet gelatin or unflavored Knox powder in meticulously prepared cocktails will obviously yield an epiphany. (I was already envisioning my own lavish coffee-table book.) Except it didn’t work out that way. I made a test batch of several different likely cocktails, among which were a sidecar, a Pendennis Club cocktail and a simple Campari and grapefruit with vodka and a bit of white wine: friendly-enough drinks to pull off in solid form. I put them into swanky silicone baking molds in cannelé and other shapes: very chic. I goosed each with a bit more sweetness than normal, figuring they might need it to come together. The few that survived the grisly unmolding process I arranged on a large platter and brought to a friend’s gathering, where they were immediately and correctly pronounced ghastly.
Wha’ happened? The alcohol, which was subdued in the recipes, blew out forcefully while, even though I’d increased the sugar, the citrus was achingly shrill. The wood in the brown spirits like bourbon and cognac emerged bitter and off-putting. They all just seemed disjointed and flat.
Palm, a veteran, commiserated about my failures: “Honestly, it’s trial and error with every single one. I wish it were easier, but some things, like cucumbers, just don’t translate very well, while others, like pineapple, work just great.”
I was ready to give up the jelly shot dream, when I was invited to guest-bartend a night at Zak Pelaccio’s round-table pop-up bar Fatty Johnson’s in Greenwich Village, alongside the Death & Co. alumnus Brian Miller. Seeking a theme that would properly razz the cocktail cognoscenti, we decided on a menu of reviled drinks from the ’70s through the ’90s. In this context, there was nothing for it but to take another stab at creating a palatable high-end jelly shot. I decided it might be more prudent to cleave to white spirits and use more fruit, specifically berries of some kind. Also, seeking to rip off Michelle’s striking use of separate layers in her creations, I began considering something like a pousse-café or a drink that used a different colored float, which brought me naturally back to the bramble.
Experimenting with different versions of the bramble shot over the course of a week, I was forced to overcome some of my prejudices. I first made a version from scratch, using just the drink’s ingredients and Knox powder. It was flat and tart. I upped the sugar content, but it still seemed two-dimensional. So I decided to try the devil; maybe Jell-O is in Jell-O shots because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. An all-Jell-O version, however, using grape Jell-O and crème de mûre in the float layer atop a body layer of lemon Jell-O, gin and lemon juice, was cloying and fake-tasting, exactly as I’d feared. Somewhere directly in the middle was the ideal. Tasting the layers separately I realized that the float was great, but the lemon Jell-O in the body was the culprit. I decided for that part to infuse the gin with its own peels and juice to make a tart unflavored gelatin version of a gin sour, as you do in the real drink, which is then brought into balance with the sweetness of the blackberry float. This brought the whole experiment together perfectly, and I felt like Professor Henry Higgins with my fair Jell-O shot.
Having applied the lipstick, we decided to embrace the pig, serving our shots as opening amuse-gueules in tacky little plastic shot cups. Disconcertingly, these went over better than all our other cocktails, and we were asked to recreate them for a charity event a week later. Careful what you reach for.
BRAMBLE JELLY SHOTS (with apologies to Dick Bradsell)
For the float:
6 ounces crème de mûre (blackberry liqueur)
7 grams (1 packet) Knox unflavored gelatin
1 package (3 ounces) grape-flavored Jell-O gelatin
1 cup hot water
In a small mixing bowl, sprinkle the Knox and the Jell-O into the hot water and stir until completely dissolved, 5 to 7 minutes. Let sit for 5 minutes, then stir in the crème de mûre. In a small, nonreactive baking dish or loaf pan, pour a few drops of cooking oil (grapeseed works well) and wipe out with a paper towel, coating the entire vessel with the barest layer. Pour blackberry float mixture in and set to chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to overnight, making certain it is level.
For the gin sour:
1 cup gin (lemon infused)
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
28 grams (4 packets) Knox unflavored gelatin
1 cup hot water.
Juice enough lemons to give you 2/3 cup juice, keeping the hulls as you squeeze. Roughly chop the squeezed hulls and put them in a coverable container along with the gin and the lemon juice. Leave at room temperature for at least 2 hours. It’s a good idea to do this before starting the float, so that by the time that has firmed up, your infusion is ready to go. When the float layer is firm, bloom the gelatin in the hot water by sprinkling it slowly while stirring, and continuing stirring until fully dissolved. Add the sugar and stir until that is also fully dissolved. Strain the gin mixture off from the lemon hulls through a fine sieve or chinoise and add it into the gelatin mixture, stirring well. Over a spoon, so as not to gouge a divot in the float layer, pour the lemon sour mix onto the float layer and return to refrigerator, again checking for levelness. Chill overnight. When ready to serve, cut into squares, or use a cookie cutter for shapes, and pull up carefully, using a cake spatula to get under the float layer. Garnish with a blackberry and/or a thin wedge of candied lemon. Or simply slurp.