Molds, vessels that shape foods, have been around for centuries and were particularly prized in fine English and American homes of the 19th century, where a premium was placed on elegant dining.
Isabella Beeton, a London wife who wrote the Victorian homemaker's handbook, "Mrs. Beeton's of Household Management," in 1857, notes that even a well-stocked, middle-class kitchen should have no less than three "jelly molds."
In her book, which has been republished in an abridged version (Oxford University Press, $13.95, paperback), Beeton offers a recipe for an English classic — molded blancmange — milk, lemon, sugar, bitter almonds, sweet almonds and cream, plus isinglass to do for it what gelatin does for the dish today.
Isinglass is made from the air bladders of fish, especially sturgeon. Another source of a gelling substance was the hooves of calves. Beeton provides a recipe for making Calf's-Feet Jelly.
The introduction of sheet, and then powdered, gelatin certainly simplified the making of "jellies."
Beeton also offers recipes for Charlotte Russe, Chocolate and Ginger creams and Jelly of Two Colors.
Molded foods still can garner praise at the table. A simple fruited gelatin mold has loads of flare that would be lacking in a plain bowl of the stuff.
A utilitarian ring mold can shape a rice salad, its center filled with chicken salad after unmolding. The same mold can be used to create a beautiful ice ring for a punch bowl. Freeze in stages and layer in flowers, fruits and leaves.
A favorite years back for ladies who lunched was Salmon Mousse molded in the shape of a fish. It is a dish worth revisiting and can be served as appetizer, luncheon entree or as a spread for crackers and slim bread rounds on a cocktail buffet.
My version, Smoked Salmon Mousse with Dill-Scented Sour Cream, is a variation on the classic. Dressed in paper-thin cucumber slices and thin strips of roasted red pepper, it will serve four for lunch and six as a first course. If there are leftovers, stir the mousse and sour cream together and refrigerate, then use as a topping for scrambled eggs at the next day's breakfast.
Cranberry-Raspberry Enrobed Orange Blancmange is a typical jelly mold that would have been found on Victorian English party tables. Blancmange (French for "white food") is a cooked pudding with cornstarch used as the thickener.
For this mold, the blancmange is flavored with orange rind and extract and encased in cranberry-raspberry gelatin. It is simple to accomplish, although the recipe may sound a bit odd.
To get the blancmange centered in the gelatin, start by making the gelatin.
Pour a half cup into the mold and chill until set. Meanwhile make the blancmange. When the warm blancmange is added to the mold, the gelatin liquifies, surrounding the pudding. Then a topper of more gelatin is added and the whole thing is chilled until solid.
It is beautiful served on a footed cake stand and when cut, the marbled blancmange inside is revealed. This makes a refreshing light dessert.
SMOKED SALMON MOUSSE WITH SAUCE
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup water
12 ounces smoked salmon
1/2 cup dill pickle relish
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon grated onion
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon dried dill weed or 1 1/2 teaspoon fresh dill, snipped
Cucumber and canned roasted peppers for decoration
Prep time: 15 minutes
Chilling time: 6 hours-overnight
Yield: 4-6 servings
In a one-cup metal measure, soften the gelatin in the water. Sit the measure in a bowl of hot water so it will dissolve.
Mash salmon. Add pickle relish, lemon juice, mayonnaise, onion and pepper and mix well. Stir in gelatin and pack the mixture into a 1-quart mold.
Chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Combine sour cream and dill. Cover and store in refrigerator overnight to allow flavors to develop.
To serve, unmold on a platter and decorate with thinly sliced cucumbers and strips of roasted red pepper. Serve with the dilled sour cream.
Note: A 16-ounce can of salmon, drained and bones and skin removed, may be substituted for the smoked salmon.
CRANBERRY RASPBERRY ENROBED ORANGE BLANCMANGE
1 3-ounce package cranberry-raspberry gelatin
2 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
5 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon orange extract
Prep time: 30 minutes
Chilling time: 6 hours or overnight
Yield: 4 servings
Prepare gelatin according to package directions, but reduce cold water to 3/4 cup. Pour 1/2 cup into a 1-quart mold, put in refrigerator to chill. Set remaining gelatin aside.
To make blancmange, scald 2 cups of milk in the top of a double boiler. Combine cornstarch, orange rind, sugar and salt and mix with remaining 1/2 cup of milk to make a smooth paste. Gradually stir the paste into the scalded milk.
Cook stirring constantly over boiling water in the double boiler until smooth and thickened. Cover pan and cook for 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently. Remove from stove and add orange extract. You may add a bit of food coloring to heighten the orange color if you wish. Set aside to cool a bit.
When gelatin is set, add the warm blancmange to the mold, leaving about 3/4-inch space at the top. Then fill to the rim with gelatin. Chill over night.
To serve, unmold and garnish with orange slices. It helps to sprinkle a bit of cold water on the surface of the plate so you can slide the gelatin to the center if it unmolds off to one side.
Adapted from a family recipe.
Carole L. Philipps is living editor of the Cincinnati Post.