Wobbly whimsy

Jelly filled oranges cut into wedges and decorated with grape leaves.

Jelly filled oranges, presentation inspired by Eliza Acton. Photo Scott Hill © HHT

Desserts have always had the benefit of being somewhat frivolous – the ‘dessert course’ for a formal meal was served ‘once the cloth was removed’, marking the time when guests could finally loosen up and adopt a more relaxed repose at table. Scott – The Curator – will have more to say on the proceedings and protocols at table in future posts, but I’m going to focus on the star of the nineteenth-century dessert course – jelly!

A colourful jelly like sculpture.

Resin jelly and medlars by Janet Tavener. Photo © Janet Tavener

Jelly seems to be one of those recurring themes when we talk about food at Vaucluse House. There is an impressive collection of copper jelly moulds from the latter half of the nineteenth century on display in the kitchen.  School children take great delight in discovering that, rather than jelly being merely an ultra-sweet party treat, such sweet sensations were once reserved only for the well-to-do. In fact, the Wentworths’ children would have eaten savoury jellies. Brawn, jellied tongue, prawns or ham suspended in aspic were common items on the dining table. The kids become less delighted when they realise that, instead of being made with a colourful ‘Aeroplane’ sprinkle,  jellies would have been made from rendered animal bones, usually calf’s feet. The Wentworths’ expenditure accounts from 1844 make specific reference to ‘gelatine dishes’ being purchased for their Hunter Valley property, indicating that gelatine manufacture was a by-product of the family’s extensive meat processing business interests in the district (the gelatine being extracted from beef cattle).

However, I’ll get into the grim side of jelly making in another post (not for the faint-hearted) and keep this one fun!

A visual delight

Before factory-made moulds like the copper ones in the Vaucluse House kitchen were available, jelly moulds were made of ceramic or wood; but even people without such extravagant resources could be whimsical with jellies. Sugar prices dropped dramatically during the eighteenth century as a result of colonization, with cheap slave labour available in the West Indies where sugar cane was cultivated, making sweetened dishes more affordable and popular. Sweet jellies were both clear and solid coloured; milk jellies were known as flummeries or, taking the French term, blancmange, and were originally made with almond milk.

Eighteenth century cookbooks include dishes such as ‘fish ponds’, ‘moon & stars’, ‘hen’s nests’, and even ‘bacon & eggs’ made with flummery. Jelly moulds gradually eclipsed the ‘free formed’ style jellies, although some of us revisit the practice today, creating novelty jellies for children’s birthday parties (e.g. ‘frogs in a pond’). Rather than using the synthetic food colouring we buy in supermarkets today, natural dyes were used: real cochineal (made from crushed beetles) for red, beetroot juice for pink, green from spinach juice and yellow using saffron. I used coffee and cocoa for the ‘bacon’ below.

Bacon and eggs made out of jelly.

Bacon and eggs in flummery. Photo Jacqui Newling © HHT

Bacon & eggs in flummery

I followed the original eighteenth century recipe but cheated, using gelatine crystals added to sweetened soy milk for the flummery. The bacon was made with by setting layers of plain white flummery and chocolate soy milk, coloured with a touch of beetroot juice in a shallow cake tin, cutting slices of it once it had fully set in the fridge. The egg was formed by setting plain white flummery in a shallow saucer, and the ‘yolk’ is a plumped dried apricot, as per the original recipe.

Jelly filled oranges

Jelly filled oranges was a dish fit for kings in the early 1800s. ‘Ribband’ or ribboned jellies had long been popular – both sweet and savoury. Antonin Carême featured this dish in the dessert course at Chateau Rothschild in 1829. Oranges are hollowed out and filled with layers of clear fruit jelly coloured with real cochineal and almond milk blancmange. The original recipe calls for Isinglass – a natural source of gelatine extracted from the swim bladder of a sturgeon (still used in clarifying wines today) but of course we now have the convenience of instant granulated or sheet gelatine.

Jelly-filled oranges

Ingredients

  • 4 packets jelly crystals (85 g) of 2 or more contrasting colours
  • boiling water
  • 6 valencia oranges (do not use navel oranges)

Note

To create the striped effect, each layer of jelly needs to set before another layer can be added, so allow a few hours for each layer. If you want a quicker option, fill each orange with a different colour and mix them up on the serving plate once they have been sliced.

Makes 6 oranges

Directions

Prepare one of the jellies using a little less water than indicated in the packet instructions (for example, use 400 ml of boiling water rather than 500 ml). Refrigerate the jelly until cool but still liquid.
Cutting the top out of an orange.
Meanwhile, using a small sharp knife, cut a circle 2 cm in diameter around the base of each orange with an inward angle to create a 'plug'.
Separate the flesh from the orange
With the tip of a teaspoon, prise the flesh away and discard, leaving the lining of pith on the skin. Be careful not to cut into the skin.* (Save the pulp for another use – or drink it!) Continue until the oranges are hollowed out.
Scooping the flesh from the orange.
Sit the oranges in wide-based cups to keep them upright. To create the striped effect, spoon in the liquid jelly to fill about 1–1.5 cm of each orange. Refrigerate till set. Meanwhile, prepare a different-coloured jelly and when cool but still liquid, spoon it over the first layer to a similar level. If the jelly is too warm it will melt the lower layer and ruin the stripe. Repeat the process until the oranges are filled and the final layer of jelly has set.
Fill orange skins with jelly.
Please note that as this process takes some time, your main reserve of jelly mixtures may start to set. Melt them by sitting the vessel they're in into warm water and stir gently until the jelly relaxes.
Jelly filled oranges on a plate
Keep the jelly-filled oranges in the fridge until just before serving. Using a sharp smooth-bladed knife, slice the oranges in half and then slice each half into two or three wedges.
Arrange on a platter and decorate with citrus leaves (or other non-toxic leaves).
Jelly orange wedges.
*Note French master chef Carême advised that if the skin is accidentally pierced, the split can be filled with cold butter to prevent the jelly from leaking through.