Give In To Savory Jell-O Molds. Make Krab Ribbon Salad.

Welcome to Jiggle All The Way, The Takeout's holiday celebration of Jell-O, gelatin, and all things wiggly. We'll be releasing new feature stories and original holiday recipes every day this week, and each of them will have a little bit of wobble.

When I committed to making a week's worth of gelatin recipes, I knew that I was going to need to fight every single gustatory instinct in my body and make some sort of savory layered salad. It is a genre that I have never understood. Who was the first person who looked at a wobbly bowl of Jell-O and said, "This could be better with tuna, maraschino cherries, and six cups of mayonnaise"? Who were this person's friends, and why did they encourage this sort of thing? Why did these recipes become popular, and who was eating them? I would like you to look at the following recipes from The Better Cooking Library Salad Cook Book of 1964 and explain them to me, because I have owned this book for at least a decade and I still have no answers. (Aimee Levitt does, though!)

I knew that the first step of understanding savory gelatin salad was to try one. I skimmed through this "salad" cookbook in search of a recipe that was potentially palatable, but also dubious enough to make me shudder. I decided to make a seafood ribbon loaf: two layers of gelatinized tomato juice sandwiching a creamy layer of milk, egg yolks, and fish. I decided to use fake crab because I freaking love fake crab, even though it earns the disdain of internet commenters who love lecturing me about crab meat. That is to say, krab gets as little respect as gelatin salads do.

My first attempt was... not terrible! It wasn't good, but the reason for that was not the gelatin, nor was it the seafood: it was the salty tomato juice, and the excessive amount of seasonings the recipe called for. The gelatin, though, was legitimately fantastic. I'd always feared that these "salads" had the firm wobble of Jell-O with random crunchy bits thrown in. In reality, when made well, gelatin salads can be luxuriously unctuous. Think about the irresistible silkiness of ramen broth or braised lamb shanks—that's all thanks to the gelatin extracted from long-simmered bones and collagen-rich cuts of meat. It's a tremendously desirable texture that's worth waiting hours to experience. While it still needed work, my first ever gelatin salad taught me that I needed get my preconceived notions of Jell-O out of my head. It's different. It's better.

It took only two more trials until I had a gelatin salad that I was more than happy to eat for multiple lunches. Replacing the tomato juice with tomato puree instantly solved the original recipe's biggest fault; seasoned rather simply with a kick of heat from Calabrian chili paste, it's sumptuous and buttery in a way that continued to surprise me with every bite. The gelatin is undetectable in the crab layer, where its only function is to keep its delicate structure from collapsing. To make the "ribbons" a bit more Christmas-y I decided one of them needed to be green, and knew the krab and tomato would be even more delicious with a schmear of rich avocado mousse. Fate threatened to thwart this plan when I was unable to procure a single avocado that was softer than a chunk of granite, but in yet another shocking development, I learned that in our futuristic modern world, packaged avocados have finally become good.

I won't say that I am now a lover of gelatin salads, because I'm not. What I am is a lover of this salad, complete with three magnificent layers that can be enjoyed either together in a dramatic layered mold or, less dramatically, each on their own. If you're not ready to accept this layered gelatin salad into your heart, break it into three separate recipes and try each of them in turn. It's not often I'll recommend taking a "baby steps" approach to a recipe, but in this case, it's understandable, and I promise the results are worth it.

Tomato layer:

  • 2 cups tomato puree
  • 1 envelope (1 Tbsp.) powdered gelatin
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1-3 tsp. Calabrian chili pepper paste (as desired)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Crab layer:

  • 1 envelope powdered gelatin
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp. freeze-dried chives
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 3 cups chopped imitation crab meat
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Avocado layer:

  • 1 envelope powdered gelatin
  • 1 large lemon
  • Cold water
  • 2 nicely sized ripe Hass avocados, or 16 oz. packaged diced avocado
  • 1 small shallot
  • 3/4 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

Make the tomato layer

In a small bowl, stir the gelatin and 1/2 cup of tomato puree together. Using the microwave or a small saucepan, heat the remaining 1 1/2 cups of tomato puree until just hot, then stir in the garlic powder, chili paste, and gelatin mixture. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired, then pour into the bottom of an 8-cup silicone bundt mold. Cover with plastic and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours to firm up.


A few hours later, make the crab layer

In a double-boiler over medium-high heat, whisk the gelatin, half and half, egg yolks, mustard, olive oil, and dried chives together until the mixture thickens into a soft custard and is hot to the touch, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in the crab, taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the tomato layer, cover with plastic, and chill for at least 2 hours.


A few more hours later, make the avocado mousse

Juice the lemon into a liquid measuring up, add cold water until you have 3/4 cup of liquid, then stir in the gelatin and set aside for 5 minutes to soften.

Using a blender, puree the avocados, shallot, garlic powder, heavy cream, and gelatin mixture until smooth and frothy. Taste for seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and garlic as desired, then pour over the crab layer, cover in plastic, and chill for at least 2 hours to firm.