When I was growing up, Jell-O was a holiday treat. But probably not the holiday you are thinking of. The thing that makes Jell-O, well, gel, is gelatin. It’s right there in the name. But gelatin is not kosher (actually, it’s complicated and some people say it is, but trust me, you don’t want the details), which meant that all those tempting commercials of beautifully colored and magically wobbly food productions were not for us Jews.
Except on Passover.
Passover was when the kosher Jell-O came to the stores. And boy, did my family buy it. Passover is basically an eight-day exercise in deprivation: not only are all bread and related leavened foods forbidden, so are all products that have not been specially supervised to guarantee that they are kosher and leaven-free. Observant Jews have to scour their houses to remove all crumbs and traces of bread and even switch over to separate dishes and cookware for the entire holiday.
There aren’t a lot of great Passover pastries. But one thing we could count on every year was Jell-O. Not only was it novel and exciting, it was so damn easy to make. Even a kid could do it! And I did. I made the hell out of that Jell-O, opening the package, pouring it in the bowl, carefully adding the boiling water that I drew from the instant hot tap, and leaving it in the fridge to set.
Or rather, “set.” Kosher Jell-O just doesn’t get quite as firm, jiggly, and robust as the traditional stuff. Because the thing about kosher Jell-O is that, as artificially bright and sugary and delicious as it is, it does not contain gelatin. Not the good stuff. Some kosher Jell-O (and kosher marshmallows) have fish gelatin, which is unambiguously kosher. (Rest assured: it does not taste fishy). Others—most of them—contain no gelatin whatsoever, relying instead on carrageenan or agar-agar to “gel.” This kind of Jell-O is actually an ideal dessert in many situations: it’s kosher, kosher for Passover, vegan, gluten-free, halal. What an enormously useful option given the variety of diets people have today!
As versatile as kosher Jell-O is, though, there is a limit to what you can do with it. Put it in a bowl, as I did for years, and it works just fine. It may be a little crusty on the edges and a little soupy in the middle when you dish it out, but it tastes exactly as it should. But try to cut it into those perfect cubes—just like the commercials—or top it with some sort of dairy-free whipped topping, and the whole thing collapses. Literally.
When I was a kid, my yearly Jell-O adventures were simply about the Jell-O itself, so this didn’t bother me at all. To be honest, I had no idea about the world of Jell-O culinary productions. It would be years before I even heard of Jell-O salads or Jell-O molds, and even longer before—out of a sense of curiosity tinged with horror—I would attempt to recreate them with my trusty kosher powder.
Spoiler alert: THEY DO NOT WORK. Kosher Jell-O, vegan or otherwise, just does not have the same robust molding capacity as the gelatin-based original. Throw a can of fruit cocktail in there, and it will move freely, swimming about the Jell-O soup if you slosh it from side to side. Put the Jell-O in a fancy mold and it will immediately revert to a vague oval glob the second it is released. Try to suspend it as a layer in an ambrosia salad and it will simply slip through the cracks.
I know. I tried. I failed. Jell-O fruit soup, anyone? The fish gelatin Jell-O works a bit better than the vegan variety given that it does somewhat set, but neither are actually up to the task.
And you know what? That’s just fine. Even though kosher vegan Jell-O is now available year-round and from a wide variety of stores and online delivery services, for me, it remains the ideal Passover dessert. It would never even occur to me to have Jell-O at any other time of year, when delicious pastries are a viable dessert option. Absent the deprivation of Passover, I can’t imagine Jell-O would even taste particularly good. Though I may well try to expand the use of Jell-O over those eight days.
This year I’m trying Jell-O shots.