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Say hello again to Jell-O with lemony summer dessert

I don’t even like Jell-O. This is a bold statement — so brash that it threatens to endanger my Midwestern, farm girl credentials.

But it’s true. I almost always pass up the Jell-O at picnics and potlucks, even when it has been blended with perfectly good foods like cake.

That’s strange, because I grew up with the stuff. The shimmering, laboratory-rendered goodness of Jell-O fused with Cool Whip formed the gelatinous backbone of many a summer dessert in my childhood. My mother had two whole basement cupboards dedicated to Jell-O, and we kids were frequently dispatched downstairs to fetch boxes for layered desserts, “poke” cakes or parfaits.

But over time, I fell out of like with the stuff. Some of this disenchantment could be linked to my family’s long obsession with dieting. Thanks to Jell-O’s otherworldly, nutrition-free composition, it was frequently marketed as the perfect diet food. My mother belonged to the earliest and most rigorous version of Weight Watchers, which meant we were frequently exposed to gelatin-laced atrocities like “Lime Fluff,” “Chilled Celery Log” and “Jellied Tomato Refresher.”

Her Jell-O pantry always contained several boxes of the “diet” Jell-O, D-Zerta, which was sweetened with saccharine and was about as satisfying as swallowing an ice cube. Even as a child, I couldn’t buy those D-Zerta ads that showed ’70s housewives happily passing up fancy cakes at their children’s birthday parties so they could tuck into some succulent translucent squares of artificially flavored hooves instead.

Recently, however, I was reminded of one Jell-O dessert that I actually liked. It was a lemon-pineapple dessert topped with a tangy-sweet whipped layer and, oddly enough, cheese. Mom made this Jell-O dessert for almost every potluck, picnic or special event for years. At some point, we all reached Lemon Jell-O burnout, which means we literally haven’t eaten it in decades.

But when brainstorming about our family’s summertime staples, I suddenly remembered this iconic dessert, in which the fruity, citrusy gelatin pairs up seamlessly with a light, tangy custard-whipped cream topping and sharp cheddar cheese. I decided it needed to be dusted off and shared.

So I called Mom to search for the recipe in her recipe box (which is actually more like a recipe “drawer,” measuring at least a foot deep, and stuffed with hundreds of good recipes). She found the recipe, but the ink had faded so badly that she couldn’t decipher it.

I resorted to searching for the concoction online, and found various versions called everything from Sawdust Salad to Lemon Jell-O-Cream Cheese Salad. I finally settled on this version. Although it is garnished with walnuts instead of cheese and doesn’t contain sliced bananas like Mom’s recipe did, it seems pretty close.

Like many Jell-O fruit salads, you can swap out fruits according to family preferences. One important note: Do NOT use fresh pineapple, as it contains enzymes that will keep the gelatin from setting up.

Incidentally, I’m happy to report that, after Mom was reminded of it, she decided it was time to bring the dessert out of retirement. My sisters are visiting from Florida next week, and I expect we will find this pretty and refreshing dessert served at a couple of meals.

Let’s just hope she never finds the recipe for the Chilled Celery Log.

Lemon Pineapple Jell-O with Pineapple Whipped Cream Topping

1 large box lemon Jell-O

4 cups water

1 cup mini marshmallows

One 20-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained with juice reserved

Ingredients for topping

Reserved juice from the can of crushed pineapple

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/4 cup + 2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2-3/4 cup walnuts, chopped, cheddar cheese OR coconut (optional)

Directions:

Heat 2 cups of water to boiling by microwaving in a large glass bowl for 4-5 minutes. Stir in contents of the Jell-O package until it dissolves.

Separate the pineapple juice from the crushed pineapple by draining the juice into a small saucepan and setting aside for later. Add marshmallows to the hot lemon Jell-O and stir until dissolved, then stir in the crushed pineapple. Stir in 2 additional cups of cold water, and pour into a large rectangular glass dish. Transfer the Jell-O to the fridge and allow to set completely, about 3-4 hours.

While the Jell-O is setting up in the fridge, prepare the pineapple whipped cream topping by whisking the beaten egg, flour and 1/4 cup sugar with the reserved pineapple juice in a small saucepan and heating over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat and cool completely. (Don’t turn up the heat, or the eggs will separate and you’ll get Jell-O Scrambled Egg Salad. Ergh.)

In another bowl, beat heavy cream with an electric mixer on high speed, gradually adding the additional 2-3 tablespoons of sugar and vanilla, until whipped cream forms and holds its shape when beaters are removed. Fold the cooled pineapple juice mixture into the whipped cream until combined, then spread over the completely set Jell-O. Sprinkle with the chopped walnuts and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.

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