If you grew up anytime before the 1970s, you likely remember seeing intricate rings and towers of jewel-toned gelatin molds at family or church gatherings and looking at them with wide-eyed wonder. These impressive molds were originally served as a statement of status through the 1800s, as gelatin was rendered from scratch in a labor-intensive process.
The advent of instant powdered gelatins at the turn of the 20th century brought the dish of the elite into the home of the average citizen. It transformed into a way to extend leftovers during the Great Depression and later became a convenience product for working wives post-World War II to make impressive and satisfying suppers in a short amount of time. As they went out of fashion throughout parts of the country in the 1980s, Southern kitchens kept the brightly colored concoctions alive and well, while mostly swapping the savory versions out in favor of sweet fruit-filled rings.
We look back on the history of the jellied towers with careful curiosity, wondering what made those dishes packed with vegetables, meats, or even mayonnaise so appealing to dinner guests. Throughout this recipe’s development, we fell back in love with the congealed salads of decades past, bringing them back to our modern dinner tables with a renewed conviction.
- ½ cup cold water
- 3 (0.25-ounce) packages unflavored gelatin
- 2½ cups boiling water
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1 large English cucumber, peeled and chopped
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 drop green food coloring (optional)
- ½ cup matchstick-cut watermelon radishes
- ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled, halved, yolks reserved, and egg whites diced
- ½ cup Greek yogurt or sour cream
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- ¾ teaspoon hot sauce
- In large bowl, place ½ cup cold water. Sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let stand until softened, about 5 minutes. Whisk in 2½ cups boiling water, sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt. Let cool for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, line a fine-mesh sieve with cheese cloth and set over a large bowl. In the container of a blender, combine cucumber and lemon juice; blend until smooth. Pour cucumber mixture into sieve; reserve 1 cup cucumber liquid, discarding solids.
- In bowl with cucumber liquid, stir in 2 cups gelatin mixture and food coloring (if using) until well combined. Chill until thickened but pourable, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in radish, parsley, and diced egg whites.
- Spray a 6-cup gelatin mold lightly with cooking spray. Pour cucumber mixture into mold, and gently tap on counter a few times to release air bubbles. Chill until set, about 1 hour.
- Set a fine-mesh sieve over a small bowl. In another bowl, mash reserved egg yolks. Whisk in sour cream, mustard, hot sauce, remaining plain gelatin mixture, and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt until combined. Pour into sieve and press through using the back of a spoon; discard any solids. Pour yolk mixture over cucumber mixture in mold. Chill until firm, about 4 hours.
- To remove, dip mold in hot water for a few seconds. Dry outside of mold and invert onto a serving platter. Keep chilled until ready to serve.