Last fall, a Jell-O shot was pressed lovingly into my palm at a picnic. I hadn’t had a Jell-O shot since my early twenties, the rancid, medicinal taste lingering like a bad memory on the back of my tongue. I was tempted to turn it down, but there was something so undeniably beautiful about the shot. One of those ornate creations that your mind wants to consume as best it can. So I ate it, and it slid down into my belly, where it blossomed into something wholly new and exciting.
What I ate was not just a Jell-O shot, but a Solid Wiggles cake—or concoction, or cocktail, or somehow all of those together. Jena Derman and Jack Schramm are the team behind Solid Wiggles: part mixology, part pastry, altogether magical. As a drink or as a dessert, what Derman and Schramm have built transcends sweaty college basement alchemy. Indeed, when I first gazed upon their new cake, the aptly titled Stunner, I felt like I was holding a flower.
Derman and Schramm have a long professional and personal history together dating back to their shared time working at Momofuku Milk Bar. Derman went the pastry route and Schramm went the cocktail route, and the two reunited during the early months of the pandemic to collaborate on Solid Wiggles. I was lucky enough to jump on Zoom with the two of them to talk about what makes the Jell-O shot both enduring and worthy of its decadent reinvention.
The Takeout: Tell me about how Solid Wiggles got started.
Jena Derman: I’d been working in pastry since 2005. I like to find fun niches within the pastry world, and I started making jelly cakes in 2018. I was really drawn to them because they appear to be magic. They look completely insane and can be mind-bending to conceptualize. I had been making them for weddings and special events, but I was frustrated with some of the limitations based on the format alone. Generally, when making these cakes, we make a base layer that has to be super, super clear. The base layer is the majority of what the Jell-O or jelly cake consists of. I had been playing with coconut water recipes and then injecting flowers into that. It wasn’t until Jack and I reconnected at the beginning of quarantine last year that I realized that with our partnership, we’d be able to magnify and obliterate how these cakes tasted.
Jack Schramm: My first day trailing at Booker and Dax [a New York City-based food science development company], I was using a centrifuge. Juice clarification is my bread and butter when it comes to creating new cocktails and coming up with drinks and flavor profiles. Jena wanted a way to add new flavors to her cakes, and she had gotten the Spinzall, which is the Booker and Dax centrifuge. We reconnected, and then it became such a logical progression to add booze to the cakes and to make Jell-O shots. I was doing a pop-up with Dave Arnold at Wildair as a fun thing, and I said, “Hey, Jena, let’s do some Jell-O shots for this event,” and they sold out within an hour. We realized we had a hit on our hands. And now we’re getting on Goldbelly, we’re shipping nationally, we’re growing our little business.
TO: What do you think the initial joy of a Jell-O shot is? Why does it endure as a treat?
JS: It doesn’t suffer from the fate of other things that people drink in their early twenties, shitty tequila or Malibu. They’re low-ABV enough and you can’t eat so many of them. There’s a positive association, generally, so we’re able to tap into that element and elevate it with ridiculous flavors.
TO: Where do you start when you’re designing the cakes?
JD: We’re thinking about flavors first. Jack and I will have an R&D session where we start with ingredients we know we want to use. Our fluencies in beverages and pastries are at a place where we can talk through things and add and take away and create on the spot. It feels like true collaboration.
TO: What are your favorite flavor combinations you’ve come up with so far?
JS: The combination that I was the most excited about was a mix of champagne, absinthe, and lemon. I love a Death in the Afternoon, which is a sugar cube with a couple dashes of absinthe and some champagne on top of it. Sometimes that gets a lemon twist, sometimes it doesn’t. They tend to get a little on the sweet side if you’re not using a super dry, bright champagne. Adding a little acid in the form of lemon as well as an ingredient called “champagne acid,” which is a combination of lactic and tartaric acids dissolved in water that mimics a wine that’s gone through malolactic fermentation without adding more wine-based ingredients—
JS: So using a little bit of technology in a way that marries everything together in a beautiful way—that’s the thing that makes me the most excited. That was the Showstopper.
JD: I kind of love all of them. They’re all so different—it’s almost like we’re building our menu for our own space. For me, the one that stands out the most was our drop for Thanksgiving. It was called the Centerpiece. It was rum-cask-finished scotch that had a spiced cranberry layer and light brown sugar milk jelly flowers in it. It was both sweet and savory. It was representative of how far we could push this thing.
JS: That one was exciting for me as well because we’ve done some cakes that are very traditional cocktail formats. We have one that’s a Paloma: it’s clarified acid-adjusted grapefruit and lime and tequila [ed: this is the Stunner, seen above]. It’s absolutely delicious, but it’s more obvious. Scotch and acid-adjusted orange and spiced cranberry and brown sugar… that doesn’t have a root in any specific cocktail. It’s something we built spontaneously together with no template, which is thrilling.
TO: Do you feel like there are “expected” flavors when it comes to both cocktails and Jell-O? How do you try to break out of that?
JD: The classic Jell-O shot is made with Everclear, or vodka, and we have done zero Everclear or vodka products so far. We’ve worked with gin, we’ve worked with rum, we’ve worked with scotch, we’ve worked with champagne. We’re trying to see what resonates with people, and what people are looking for.
JS: We’re also interested in making things we want to drink or we want to eat. The next flavor we’re developing, the only spirit in it is going to be Campari.
JD: Which is my personal go-to.
JS: We’re writing a love letter to ourselves with Campari and orange and lime.
TO: Where do you look for inspiration when it comes to the appearance of these cakes?
JD: The majority of the cakes and items we’re making exist within this six-inch round template or canvas, if you will. We’re always trying to push the limits of how dense or subtle we want the cakes to be. Our main process involves injecting milk jelly—an opaque jelly, sometimes colored—into the clear canvas base. Depending on the overall flavor story, we’ll either oversaturate it with flowers or leave it more minimal. Within that, we use these special tips… if you imagine a bayonet, it’s like a knife on the end....
JS: It’s a syringe—a needle on the end of a syringe—but it has a knife edge attached to the needle that it’s in the shape of a flower petal or a leaf. We have hundreds of these tips, so part of the [design] process is laying out exactly which shapes of each petal we want. “This one’s gonna have three flowers with this petal,” or “each flower will have four layers of these petals.”
JD: Is it an opulent peony or is it an understated poppy?
TO: Are there any aspirations to add solid elements to the jelly cakes? Chunks of fruit, or something aspic-y?
JD: Generally, I like that the texture is silky. There’s nothing that’s stopping your fork or spoon from breaking the texture. There’s no resistance. You want all of the components to have the same strength and the same pushback against your eating utensil. One way that we see a cake succeeding is if all the textures line up.
JS: They’d also need to be stable enough to ship. We know these gelatin products are very stable, but introducing a foreign object could interrupt that. Mold could start growing. We want to avoid that.
JD: Or it could be a fissure point.
JS: Once we’ve done the necessary food safety research, the sky’s the limit.
TO: Talking to you now as a person with a birthday coming up, can you pitch me on a jelly cake versus a conventional birthday cake?
JS: I mean, how many birthday cakes have you eaten in your life?
TO: Fair enough!
JS: I like a funfetti or a German chocolate cake as much as the next guy, but every once in a while you’ve gotta change it up. It’s fun, it’s beautiful. It’s an intersection of art and cuisine. That’s a place I love to operate inside of.
JD: We do both alcoholic and non-alcoholic ones. So these are fun for people who drink, but for people who don’t drink or for families with kids, it’s a real delight. Early on, we got a lot of feedback from people with kids—the kids were super jealous they couldn’t also be playing with these.
There are so many reasons why a drink can be interesting. Our Showstopper—Jack’s favorite with champagne—the non-alcoholic version of that was made with Martinelli’s sparkling cider. There are so many ways to be playful.
JS: And that still taps into that nostalgia that we love.