Red, green, orange, blue… and all the colors you can dream up! Vanilla, cajeta, jamaica, chocolate, coffee, fruits, nuts… and just about any flavor you may crave. Smooth or chunky, creamy or foamy, heavy or light… choose any texture you like. Wait! We haven’t even gotten into shapes. Did you say your son likes Spiderman, your mom likes flowers or you want to go for a simple 2 layer design?
If you haven’t fallen for Jello, then you haven’t tried those in the Mexican repertoire. Forget about the 1950s-style-jello salads. Forget about the Jello you’ve seen people eat, or you may have eaten, in hospitals, too.
Mexican Jello is something to celebrate, to showcase, to boast about.
Gelatinas, in Spanish, many times come in individual servings with different flavors stacked in bright and colorful layers. Sold by street vendors who carry them in see through 2 to 3 tier covered stands, they are a common site in gas stations where cars wait for their turn and passersby can’t help but be tempted. Now you know why I always tagged along with my dad to fill up the tank!
It’s hard to show up at a kids party in Mexico and not see them. You will run into more sophisticated versions of them, standing tall, firm and proud at grown up parties, maybe with generous splashes of rum, tequila or rompope in their mix. There are simpler Jello creations brightening shelves at bakeries and grocery stores, too. In fact, Jello is such a big thing, that some cooks have elevated it to a complex art form with floral and abstract designs.
Most importantly, home-made Jello is a staple dessert in people’s homes. It is simple, easy to make and healthy: it can be tailored to use fresh seasonal ingredients.
The secret to this infinitum of possibilities with Jello is unflavored gelatin, which can be found in just about any grocery store: here and in China. Pick any ingredient, any flavor, and you can turn it into Jello.
Since I am going all out here, plus it is almost my son Juju’s birthday, I decided to translate one of our favorite cakes into Jello. Yup!
Remember Tres Leches Cake? Well, the first layer of my Spring-Time and Almost-Juju’s-Birthday-Jello is a Tres Leches Jello. Whole milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk turned into Jello (just follow my super simple recipe below!). The milks are quickly simmered to thicken, the result: rich, almost custardy like and so creamy.
I love serving Tres Leches Cake with strawberries, and Juju happens to be wild about strawberries, so my next layer has them. It is a Tres Leches Cake with strawberries in Jello form. Fully. And decadently.
I have the berries swimming in a a Jello mix made with cranberry juice. It gives that layer a bright punch, a kick of refreshing tartness and more shine, which counterbalances the creamy Tres Leches layer.
I didn’t add any sugar to that fruit layer, because the Tres Leches layer has all the sweetness I think it needs. Plus, you are eating them together, one on top of the other.
Since you can do almost anything you want (no joke!) with Jello, I played and alternated. Some Jellos started with the Tres Leeches layer and others with the fruity one.
I chose plastic cups, because they are practical, you can see through, making it more colorful and irresistible. As a bonus, the servings are already pre measured. But you can choose many kinds of molds, individual or not.
It’s a good idea to place all your cups in a baking tray or sheet pan, so that when you move them in and out of the refrigerator they won’t shake much. You don’t have to take so many trips either.
So you prepare your mixes, in a snap. Pour your first layer and refrigerate until it firms up, then pour the second layer and let it firm up again. You can go crazy and make thick layers, thin layers, 2 layers or 10 layers!
Sometimes experiments in the kitchen are a total failure and you just have to pick up the pieces and move on. But sometimes, it takes a few tries to get it right (this one took three tries!) and when you nail it, they become a treasure to share. If you feel you are onto something, don’t give up on the first try. Go for it, find a treasure and share it.
Here, this is a treasure I sought and found, and now it is yours too.
Tres Leches and Strawberry Jello
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For the tres leches jello:
- 1 cup whole milk or 2 percent
- 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin or about 2 tablespoons
- 1/2 cup lukewarm water
For the strawberry jello:
- 2 cups cranberry or pomegranate juice
- 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin or 2 about tablespoons
- 1/2 cup lukewarm water
- 1/2 pound strawberries stemmed, rinsed and quartered
To prepare the tres leches jello:
- Bring 1 cup whole milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat to medium low and allow milk to simmer for 5 minutes. Add the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and vanilla extract and stir to combine. Increase heat to medium high to return to a simmer, then reduce to medium low and let simmer for 5 more minutes. Remove from heat and pour into a large mixing bowl.
- *Pour 1/2 cup lukewarm water into a medium bowl and add 2 envelopes of unflavored gelatin. Stir until well combined, then let rest until the mixture puffs up (it will increase slightly in volume and appear as if it’s solidifying) – approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Fill a small saucepan with up to 2-3 inches of water, and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Place the bowl with the puffed-up gelatin mixture onto the saucepan with the simmering water. Let it rest there, stirring occasionally, until the gelatin is completely dissolved and the mixture has a barely amber color – approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Pour the dissolved gelatin into the tres leches mixture and stir to combine.
To prepare the strawberry jello:
- Pour the juice on to a large mixing bowl. Repeat step with * above. Pour the dissolved gelatin into the juice and stir to combine.
To layer your tres leches and strawberry jello:
- In 6-8oz plastic cups or single-portion gelatin molds, use a liquid measuring cup or small pitcher to fill about 1/3 of the cup with tres leches mixture. Place the cups into the refrigerator until it solidifies (appears solid and does not slosh when moved), about 20 to 30 minutes. Do not put your remaining Tres Leches mix and juice mix in the refrigerator.
- Remove from the refrigerator and pour juice mixture on top to fill about another 1/3 of the cup and add some strawberry pieces. Return to the refrigerator and let it set for about 20 to 30 minutes.
- You are at free will to play with your combinations! You can decide how many layers (one or ten!) and how thick or thin you want to make them. You can choose which flavor you want to start with or if you want to alternate. Continue until you are done using all of the flavored mixes. When done, return to the refrigerator, cover with plastic wrap and let chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
- If you want to use a large 8 to 10 serving mold, fill with Tres Leches mix and refrigerate until set. Then pour strawberry mixture on top along with the fruit. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before unmolding. It should be firm and not feel sticky or sag and should slide easily out of the mold with a few gentle shakes.
- Hint: If your Jello mixtures start to solidify while you are waiting for layers to set in the refrigerator, not to worry! Adding a little at a time, stir water into the mixture until it becomes more liquid.