rhubarb jello and almond parfait
Homemade jello (jelly?) seems deeply unnecessary until you try it, realize how fun it is, and finally achieve the merging of adult and inner child you’ve been chasing in therapy for thousands of dollars. I exaggerate, but only slightly—this is jello like my eight year old self never knew, free of offputting dyes and tasting like the very essence of rhubarb dialed up to the nth degree. I thought I had grown out of the wobbly, shiny stuff: this recipe brought me back around, and it’s only slightly more cumbersome than the packaged version.
You could stop there, but because rhubarb and almond are natural partners, we also make a foolproof ten-minute almond pastry cream (I struggled through 1oish fussy recipes so you don’t have to) and top it all with toasty almonds—and the very same poached rhubarb you used to make the jelly. What we have here is a sneakily impressive spring dessert worth calling your friends over for.
I first encountered jello at my childhood best friend’s house. My parents’ snack cupboard consisted mostly of nuts, dried fruit, and crusty rye crackers (bless them), but hers gleamed with forbidden wonders. There were salty bricks of Mr. Noodles, Smartfood that coated my fingertips and got all over my clothes, endless chocolate chips, and neat little packets of powdered jello. We’d mix it up, watch four episodes of Ghost Hunters, and share a mixing bowl of delightfully fluorescent goop before tucking in for a night of frenzied giggling and pretending to sleep when her parents walked by.
I regret nothing but the unfortunate impression the chemically, vaguely fruit-flavoured stuff left on my adult self. It was perfect in the moment, but not a flavour I generally seek out now. The next time I would think seriously about jello, it would be while perusing a vintage cookbook and gawking disgustedly at bits of celery and tuna suspended in lime gelatin. Between childhood naivete and retro horrors, there seemed to be no room for the stuff in the way I like to eat now. But then, while comfort-watching this Nigella video—in which she makes fuchsia rhubarb and wine jelly in a “proper mold—bulging and old-fashioned”—I got curious again.
I didn’t even know you could make jello this way: she simply poached rhubarb with sugar in the oven, strained out the juice, and combined it with half a bottle of muscat wine and gelatin. I tried it as per her recipe, and while it was lovely, found that the wine lorded over the rhubarb to the point where I couldn’t taste the latter as much as I would like. (I’m not drinking much these days, which may be why). So I nixed it, and then—inspired by Nigella serving it with a pour of cream—started dreaming about something creamy and plush I could layer in a glass. Nutty almond works beautifully with rhubarb’s berry notes, so I landed on almond pastry cream—and after much hullabaloo and failure, found what I think is the easiest possible way to make it.
Nigella suggests serving the leftover poached fruit over yogurt—which you absolutely should if you have any left over—but it’s also perfect on top. It retains more tartness than the juice, offsetting the jello and cream’s sweetness and making it all more texturally interesting. Finally, toasted almond slivers practically begged to be sprinkled overtop, so here we are. This is the jello my grownup self deserves. May all other parts of life catch up in similar fashion.
Order of operations: Ideally, you’d make the jello and pastry cream a day in advance, giving both plenty of time to cool in the fridge. If you want, you can also toast the almonds while you’re at it. Assembly the following day will be a cinch—just layer and serve.
Gelatin: This recipe uses silver leaf gelatin, which is a little more common in Europe than North America, but very easy to find online. Unlike the powdered stuff, leaf gelatin is completely odourless, tasteless, clear, and easy to dissolve, so I strongly prefer it for this recipe—but you can use the powdered kind of it’s all you have (use two tablespoons).
Glasses: I use 6oz. glasses, but you can use pretty much whatever you like—small mason jars are a solid alternative. You can also play with the size—these would make adorable shot-sized desserts, and would probably work well in a larger format, though I haven’t tried it.
Other fruit: I’ve only done this with rhubarb, but see no reason another fruit wouldn’t work—except pineapple, papaya, and kiwi, which apparently contain an enzyme that breaks down gelatin.
rhubarb jello and almond parfait
jello and fruit topping
rhubarb one large bunch, or around 750g
zest and juice of one orange
granulated sugar 175g or about 3/4 cup
water 3 cups
leaf gelatin (see headnote) 7 sheets
almond pastry cream
whole milk 500ml or 2 cups
sugar 125g or just over half a cup
eggs 4 (3 yolks, 1 whole)
slivered almonds half a cup
make the jello
Preheat the oven to 350F. Cut the rhubarb into small pieces. Add to a baking dish with the sugar, orange juice and zest, and water. (A standard pie plate is a good size for this, but use anything that fits). After an hour, remove it from the oven (be very careful not to spill—you want all that jewel-toned juice).
Strain the rhubarb out, shaking a bit to get as much juice out as possible (but avoid pressing, since this will make the jelly cloudy). While the strainer sits over the bowl, put the leaf gelatin in a bowl of cold water to cover. Let it stand for five minutes.
Taste the juice—it should be pleasantly tart-sweet—and add more sugar a teaspoon at a time if necessary. When you’re happy with it, add half the juice to a small pot over medium and wait till you see a few small bubbles. Turn the heat off, squeeze the gelatin leaves of any excess water (it will feel weird and squelchy and fun), and add them to the hot rhubarb potion.
Whisk till dissolved, recombine with the remaining juice, and pour about halfway full into the glasses you plan to serve in (see headnote on glasses). Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least six hours or overnight. Put the leftover fruit in a container, and refrigerate that till you’re ready to assemble.
toast the almonds
Pour the slivered almonds in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. While the rhubarb is in the oven (or afterwards if you forget), toast on the top rack at 350F till they’ve turned decidedly tan, or about eight minutes (check frequently).
make the pastry cream
Heat the milk in a medium pot till it’s barely simmering. Turn off the heat.
In the meantime, whisk the sugar, three egg yolks, and one whole egg (save the remaining whites for a breakfast omelette) in a medium-sized bowl for a good 45 seconds, or till the mixture lightens slightly. Whisk in the flour.
Add the hot milk to the egg mixture in one go and whisk quickly to combine. Put it all back in the pot, and whisk pretty much continuously—so you don’t get goopy egg on the bottom—for four to five minutes, or until it thickens nicely.
Turn off the heat, add the vanilla and almond extracts, and pour back into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap pressed directly on top of the cream (to stop it from forming a skin). Chill in the fridge till well-cooled.
When the jelly is set, pastry cream is cooled, and almonds are toasted, dollop a thick layer of cream onto the jello. Follow with a good layer of the poached rhubarb, and finally with a sprinkle of almonds.