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Jelly wobbles

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Persian proverb "When fortune turns against you, even jelly breaks your teeth" was never more true than when I made jelly; in one case, the meaning was almost literal.

To beat the heat, the theme of the Don't Call Me Chef column this month (out in print today) was jellies. Refreshing, cool and very popular in Malaysia, this dessert would go down a treat.

And everyone says it is easy to do. Dried agar-agar strips were traditionally used but nowadays, there's agar-agar powder and instructions on how to make jelly on the back of the packet. All you need to think about is the flavour. That shouldn't be too difficult.

Well, easier said than done. This is my journey down the road to ruin...

Having proper equipment doesn't guarantee success 
Ambition is a good thing but if you just don't have the talent, it's okay to give up, move on, do something else. I should have told myself that long before that fourth attempt at making jelly babies (or gumdrops).

I used several recipes.

Round 1: A simple recipe that uses powdered agar-agar and also corn syrup. It came out no different than normal jelly, except a little harder. Not chewy or springy at all. It was nice as a jelly, but it was no jelly baby.

Round 2: This recipe required heating sugar, corn syrup and gelatin up to 140°C, cooling it down and blending with flavourings. It was supposed to have been firm enough that it could be piped out. All I got was a thick but still fluid mixture. And when it set, the texture was all wrong. It was sort of chalky and not very pleasant. In the picture, it's the brownish cube in the background. I tried covering it with chocolate (foreground), but that's didn't help.

Round 3: I consulted Candy Making for Dummies, and since this is an informative and non-threatening series of books, and the recipe is called "Easy Raspberry Fruit Jellies", I thought I couldn't go wrong with it. While the instructions are precise and easy to follow (this time, the syrup needs to be heated to 110°C) and the gelatin can be substituted with agar-agar, again the texture was all wrong.

Round 4: Finally, I just went with the instructions on a packet of agar-agar powder but used less water. I didn't have human-shape moulds, but I had some nifty ice-cube trays with numbers and the alphabet that could make cute shapes. After the pieces come out of the mould, ideally they should be dried under the sun over a day or two so the moisture completely evaporates. That wasn't practical so I left the pieces on the kitchen counter. But that was like putting a feast out for the ants... and they came a-calling!

Verdict: I failed with every recipe. But I am determined to get this right, although it will probably be a while before I attempt this again.

Pretty but so rubbery
Konnyaku jelly powder sure works fast! The sugar syrup started to thicken almost as soon as I stirred in the powder. I think left it a tad long on the heat and it was quite hard and chewy ­­– like biting into the rubber sole of a shoe! I have a feeling konnyaku may work better than agar-agar if I tried to make the jelly babies again.

The jelly was moulded both in the skins of the dragonfruit as well as in a ramekin (above, right).

Fruit and cake soup - not a winning combination
This was the WORST of all attempts (yes, the capital letters are a necessary emphasis). If the jelly doesn't firm up, fine, I still had a fruit soup, but this had soggy sponge fingers in it. No good.

I saw this recipe on China Daily and it had been sliced into a lovely looking bar. Instead of agar-agar, I used vegetarian gelatin, which hardly gelled. It must have expired. Or perhaps I didn't use enough.

The parfait may look palatable in the mould, but the sponge fingers disintegrated when I scooped some out into a bowl (see inset). But disgusting as it looked, I had to try it... It. Is. Not. Good. The fruit saves it in terms of taste, but the mushy texture is awful. I salvaged it by separating as much of the fruit from the sponge as I could.

The one that worked... second time round
Finally, the jelly dish that I featured in Don't Call Me Chef. I had to make it twice. The first time (pictured above, right), I didn't chill the wine enough and I was a little heavy-handed with blending the wine and jelly syrup so there were no bubbles. I was more gentle the second time round and followed the instructions faithfully. Here's the link to the recipe.

Making these jellies in wine or cocktail glasses would have made a better picture and the bubbles would have been more visible, but I only had these glass bowls. Maybe it's time I took up wine-drinking.

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