It is time to reclaim the jelled dessert. And while I believe that there is a certain retro charm to the orange mold made with sherbet or the magical layered stripes of a rainbow slice, I’m thinking a little more elegant. Not a neon-colored watch-it-wiggle concoction, but a sophisticated chilled dessert with just the barest wobble. Not a cloyingly sweet meal-ender for the kids, but a balanced and subtle refresher that is a grown-up treat, but still kid-friendly. The kind of sweet that, while completely appropriate after a lovely dinner party, is very much at home on your brunch table.
Strangely, in order to find that more modern ideal of lightly jelled desserts I had to go back in time, all the way to blancmange, a dessert that is so medieval it is mentioned in the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. From the French blanc-mangier or white dish, blancmange was traditionally a dessert of sweetened milk thickened with almonds, which might in fact date its inspirations back to similar Arabic desserts of rice and almonds. As the dish gained popularity in Europe, fruit purees were eventually added which eliminated the “blanc” of the dish, but added lovely flavor. The fruited desserts were often brightly colored and fanciful, decorated with all sorts of candied tidbits and presented in part for their whimsical effect. The dessert eventually became so popular in the UK that to this day powdered “just add milk” versions can be readily purchased at the grocery stores there, just as easy to make as our Jell-O, if lacking a bit of the nuances of the scratch versions.
The magic of blancmange is that it has more in common with a panna cotta than it does with a fruity jelled dessert. Just enough gelatin is used to give it a set that lends itself to fancy molding, but the flavors are a wonderful balance of fruit and almonds and cream. This version is just sweet enough to qualify as dessert, but not so sweet that you couldn’t get away with eating it for breakfast, topped with granola and fresh berries as a special alternative to yogurt. It is a great brunch dish, since it can be made up to three days in advance. And it comes together in a flash, using mostly pantry ingredients, so while it does need to set for a long while, if you make it in the morning, you are good to go for dinner.
Traditionally this is made with raspberries, since they are such good friends with almonds, but other fruits work just as well. By using frozen fruit, you are guaranteed the right amount of puree with a consistent liquid content, plus it means that the recipe can be made with any flavor any time of year. Use whatever fruit you love and don’t hesitate to experiment.
1 packet Knox unflavored gelatin
2 10-ounce bags of frozen raspberries or other fruit, thawed
1 ounce raspberry liqueur (optional)
2 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
¾ cup whole milk
½ cup superfine (caster) sugar
4 tablespoons almond meal or almond flour
1/2 teaspoons almond extract
¾ cup heavy cream
Sprinkle the gelatin powder over 3 tablespoons cold water in a small bowl and let sit for 5 minutes to bloom.
Puree the raspberries in food processor or powerful blender until completely smooth. If using raspberries or other fruit with seeds, pass through a sieve into a clean bowl, pressing through to extract the puree, and discarding the seeds. This step seems fussy, but is totally worth it, you want the dish to be smooth not chunky, and nothing is less elegant than your guests picking raspberry seeds out of their teeth. Stir in the liqueur if using. Set aside.
Mix the cornstarch with a little of the milk in a medium pan, whisking until you have a lump-free slurry. Then stir in the remaining milk, sugar and ground almonds. Whisk to combine, then turn the heat on medium high. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 3–5 minutes until thickened. Remove the pan from the heat and add the bloomed gelatin, whisking until fully dissolved and blended into the mix. Stir in the almond extract.
Mix in the cream and all of the fruit purée, combine thoroughly, then pour into a greased mold. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the mixture to prevent a skin forming, then put into the fridge for a minimum of 6 hours or overnight. Can be made up to 3 days in advance. To serve, unmold, decorate if desired with fresh fruit or small candies or whipped cream and serve.
You can also chill in individual ramekins or glasses, or make parfaits with crushed cookies or granola.