"Recently I found my mother's white, metal recipe box, hand-painted by my father with blue bachelor buttons, his favorite flower. That rusty old box had gone missing for years and when I opened it, I felt shivers of nostalgia as I looked at Nancy Knickerbocker's scrawl on the curling brown cards.
"My mother kept our icebox stocked with exotic foods by 1950's standards — jars of capers, a crock of confit, and more often than not, a peculiar bowl of wobbly amber-colored Jello. The Jello was indented with little spoon marks from my mother's constant nibbling. Made with sweet wine, it delivered a gloved punch that soothed her nerves. When she paid bills in the afternoon or tended to other household chores that seemed stressful to her, she felt perfectly deserving of a fortifying bite of that wine-laced Jello. As you will notice throughout this book, I include other recipes of hers, always cooked with some sort of liquor. While making Welsh Rarebit, bourbon balls, or coq au vin, she'd gleefully proclaim 'a little for the pot and a little for me.'
"As I sat at my kitchen table reading the recipes, separated with antiquated dividers that read 'canapés,' 'casseroles,' and 'chafing dish,' I was surprised to find that some were still worth making — Portuguese Bean Soup, Welsh Rarebit, and that Marsala Gelée. I decided to test it on two of my favorite chefs, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Scott Warner of Don Giovanni in Napa. I invited them over for a meal that included bottarga, salty, air-dried fish roe that I had just smuggled home from a trip to Tunisia. I planned to shave it over a simple pasta and I needed a light, clean, clear dessert to follow. Wine Jello it was. I made one boozy batch and another with cooked Marsala for those who didn't want the Nancy Knickerbocker kick.
"A few days later I got an e-mail from the Chez Panisse kitchen requesting the recipe for a dinner at the restaurant. All her life, my mother read cookbooks and was fascinated with every aspect of cooking. She would have been so proud to know the legacy of her recipe, some 25 years after her death."
Wine Jello Recipe
When we had this dessert growing up in San Francisco, we called it wine Jello; I always felt a little buzz from it. If you want to calm the kick in this dessert, heat the Marsala for a few minutes first; the flavor will remain but the alcohol will be tempered. Be sure to make this at least 5 hours ahead, as it needs to jell.
2 envelopes unflavored powdered gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup boiling water
3/4 cup sugar plus additional for sweetening cream
1-2/3 cups Marsala or sherry
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup heavy whipping cream beaten to soft peaks with a little sugar, optional
In a large heatproof bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and let stand until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the boiling water and sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Stir in the Marsala and lemon juice and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until firm, at least 4 hours or preferably overnight. Spoon into dessert bowls, top each serving with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream, and serve.
Welsh Rarebit of Artisanal Cheddar and Guinness Stout
1 pound aged (2 to 4 years) cheddar (such as Cheshire cheese with a good crumb) grated
1/2 cup Guinness stout
1 teaspoon English dry mustard mixed with a little water
Dash of cayenne pepper
1 egg yolk, beaten (optional)
4 slices crusty country loaf, toasted and buttered OR 1 head of steamed cauliflower, left whole
Place a double boiler over high heat until the water in the bottom half is boiling. Add the cheese to the top part of the double boiler, a little at a time, stirring constantly. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of the stout. Once the cheese begins to melt reduce the heat to medium-low. As it begins to thicken, add the rest of the stout and stir with a wooden spoon.
Continue to stir while you add the mustard and the cayenne. Add the egg and whisk the mixture well. Continue to stir until the mixture becomes smooth and slightly thickened.
To serve, you can either pour the Welsh rarebit over the toast arranged on a platter, or spread it over the toast and broil it for a few seconds. A third option is to pour the creamy sauce over the steamed cauliflower.
From Peggy Knickerbocker's James Beard Award-winning book, Simple Soirees: Seasonal Menus for Sensational Dinner Parties.
Peggy Knickerbocker's mother, Nancy.