“Why are the brains crunchy?”
That’s a good question. It is also one your children should never have to ask you, as well as a question you—as a parent—should never have to answer. And yet, there I was.
So, full disclosure, this is really a Christmas Eve story, believe it or not. But, as I was thinking of what might make a good Halloween tale, I kept coming back to this one. Kind of like The Nightmare Before Christmas, this story spans—and unites—holidays.
Several years ago we bought a brain mold for gelatin. And really, why would you not? You get to have Jell-O formed into a brain-like shape. That’s got ‘fun’ written all over it. So, yeah, we got one. And like a real family that has stuff to do, we put it in the cupboard and forgot about it.
Then, a friend get-together occurred and Richard brought a layered Jell-O dessert that I could have just sat and ate all. night. long. It was sooo good. I just cut small squares out of the tray and sucked them straight down my throat. Yummers. Seriously. Yummers.
It wasn’t that I have never had Jell-O before, or that I have gelatin related issues to work through. It was all because of how the dessert was prepared. It was layered flavors. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “Well, that’s nothing new.” And you’re correct on that. But what Richard had done was new, for me. So there.
There was like five or six thin layers of Jell-O. And every other layer was a creamy Jell-O. Instead of using water to dissolve the mix, Richard used condensed milk. It was so, so good. When you cut the servings out of the tray, and then looked at the cross-section, you had transparent reds, and blues. While in between, there were opaque reds and blues. It was delicious. It was heavenly.
Well, fast-forward a few years (still several years ago), and we find our brain mold. “Idea! Let’s layer it like Richard’s Jell-O was. Because last time we used the mold, It just sort of, well… It was just a giant lump of peach-flavored Jell-O.” That was not much fun. And seeing as how this was a holiday time, we needed to up the ante—a little bit at least.
We got some strawberry and green-apple flavored gelatin desserts—two separate flavors mind you, not a combination flavor. This way, we could divide the mixes up and layer the gelatin. This was going to be epic. Just one thing: We had never done anything like this before.
As we made calculations as to the volume of the brain mold, ratioed the layers and mix powders, rationed out the times to make it all work out, we failed to consider the condensed milk. Now, as an experienced—and professionally trained—cook, I had never heated condensed milk to boiling before. What I did know was that if I did not watch it as it heated, and it scorched, the whole thing would be ruined. So, after some consultation with my daughter, Sarah, we decided to just add the Jell-O mix directly into the cool/warmed condensed milk. What could go wrong?
First, a green layer. Let chill in refridgerator. Then a creamy pinkish-red layer. Let chill in refridgerator. Repeat. And that is how the next several hours went. According to the touch tests we were executing at regular intervals, everything was solidifying just fine. Alright. Nothing to worry about.
Then, the time came to test it. It looked fine. The weight felt slightly heavy, but still alright. There was some giggling, but it was Jell-O, so of course there would be. The top of the mold (which, when flipped over would become the bottom of the mold) was solid to the touch. It was all going to be just fine. Yup. Nothing to worry about for sure.
If you’ve never tried to remove what looks like 20 pounds of Jell-O (but is probably closer to just 3lbs) from a mold shaped like a brain, well, you haven’t lived. It wasn’t releasing from the sides. So, we tried the whole running it under hot water thing. We tried the just turning it over and shaking it thing. We tried the running it under hot water while turning it over and shaking it thing. The Jell-O brains were not coming out. And then they did.
The gelatinous goop fell out of the mold and onto the plate below, which quickly was traded out for a bowl because our concoction wasn’t all solid enough. And when I say ‘all’, I mean ‘all’, because some of it was and some of it wasn’t. Layers of the gelatin had gelatinized while other layers remained more of a soquid (solid-liquid). Not good.
Because we hadn’t fully dissolved the mixes into the condensed milk, the gelatinizing process didn’t gelatinize. At all. However, because it was in the fridge, the condensed milk had develop a slight rigidity, and so, we thought it had become gelatinized. Boy, were we wrong. What poured out was a soupy-sludgy-soquidy-so-so-dessert that in both texture and consistency, resembled real brains. Not the best thing to serve to your children on Christmas Eve. But also, not the worst.
Reminding everyone that just because it doesn’t look good, doesn’t mean it isn’t good, I handed the brave souls that were loyal to me, some spoons. We each tentatively scooped up the white, pink, and greenish goulash filled with chunks of Jell-O leather and grains of gunk (we would soon find out what that was all about). Nobody wanted to go first, but nobody really wanted to back out either. So, we all tentatively pressed the edges of our spoons to our lips and slurped it up.
“Daddy, why is it crunchy?”
It was crunchy. What had happened was a Jell-O nightmare right out of a Steven King novel. The grains were the powder mix that just didn’t dissolve, but had sort of crystalized because we hadn’t heated the condensed milk enough—or at all. And as such, they were now acting like sugary grains of Jolly Rancher sandpaper in our mouths. Also, somehow, certain parts of certain layers had sort-of solidified and had created a type of leathery sheet of semi-transparent edible plastic. We had to tear it apart with our hands or cut it with a knife, like steak. Some of us tried a second spoonful—from a different section—just to see if there was a safe spot to eat from. No. No, there was not.
I can’t forget the distorted looks of horror and anguish that were the faces of my children as they attempted to understand why their father would do something this awful and heinous to them. I still wake up—once in a while—in a cold sweat. The voice of my youngest child echoing in my mind, “Why is it crunchy?”
Epilogue: Just a few days ago, my family decided to have a simple barbeque. We thought we would try the Jell-O brains once more. My oldest, Sarah, upon seeing it exclaimed, “Why?! Have we not learned our lesson yet?!”