Last weekend, I watched the Academy Awards with friends who planned a snacks and drinks menu that referenced every Best Picture nominee. There were deviled eggs (The Shape of Water), wafer crackers (Lady Bird), and more. When Jordan Peele won an Oscar for Get Out (Best Original Screenplay), our intrepid hostess brought out a tray of sweet tea Jell-O shots, a nod to a pivotal scene in the movie, when one character uses a cup of tea and a spoon to put another character under involuntary hypnosis.
The shots, a combination of vodka, black tea, sugar, and lemon Jell-O, were sophisticated and delicious. I've enjoyed Jell-O shots in Dixie cups and tiny plastic tubs, but these were the first I've seen served in hollowed-out lemon wedges. It's an easy trick: You slice lemons in half, remove the insides, and pour in your shot recipe. Once the Jell-O sets, you cut each lemon half into smaller wedges. It seems that Jell-O shots, once relegated to the fraternity party and spring break circuits, have somehow become more refined in recent years.
Excited, I perused an online article about Jell-O shots by historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman, who pens the fascinating blog Four Pounds Flour. Lohman discovered — and summarily recreated — what is likely the grandfather of the Jell-O shot, a drink called Punch Jelly that she found in the pages of Jerry Thomas' 1862 book How to Mix Drinks.
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Of the cocktail, which was made from dark rum, cognac, lemonade, and gelatin (likely calves foot jelly, originally), Thomas wrote, "This preparation is a very agreeable refreshment, but should be used in moderation: The strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatin, that many persons, particularly of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper." Thomas, known as the father of American mixology and a New York saloon owner, was clearly onto something.
On the recipe website Tablespoon.com, I found the elegant Bramble Jell-O Shot, a two-layer drink crafted by renowned bartender and Cosmopolitan creator Toby Cecchini. Its base is a sour layer that consists of gin, lemon juice, sugar, and unflavored gelatin. On top rests a blackberry layer, made from blackberry liqueur and grape Jell-O. The recipe is set in a loaf pan, then cut into squares and topped with a blackberry and candied lemon.
Speaking of Cosmos, I found a recipe for a jiggly variation on Cecchini's cocktail on another site, the aptly titled Jelly Shot Test Kitchen. Make your own Cosmopolitan Jelly Shots by combining cranberry juice cocktail and Rose's Lime Juice with plain Knox gelatin, then stir in orange-flavored vodka and some Grand Marnier. Pour into molds, let set, and garnish with lime zest.
Jelly Shot Test Kitchen is a revelation. Recipes are sorted by alcohol and theme. A quick glance at St. Patrick's Day cocktails led me to Irish Car Bomb Jelly Shots (two layers consisting of Guinness beer and Baileys Irish Cream), Pistachio Pudding Shots (vodka, milk, and instant pistachio pudding) and Lucky-tini o' the Irish (pear-flavored vodka, Midori, and diet Sprite).
Mojitos, martinis, Arnold Palmers, and French 75s can all be given the Jell-O shot treatment. Search for an already tested recipe, because the proportions of alcohol and water need to be precise to ensure that the Jell-O properly sets.
Next time I host brunch, I'm determined to make Bloody Mary Jell-O Shots. I found directions on the website The Improv Kitchen, but you can use your own Bloody Mary recipe. Mix together the non-alcoholic ingredients in a pot over medium heat, add a packet of unflavored gelatin, and stir until it's dissolved. Let the mixture cool for one minute, then add vodka. Pour the liquid into celery stalks, let set, and then trim the celery into smaller pieces. To borrow the sage words of Jerry Thomas, it sounds like a "very agreeable refreshment" indeed.