Retro Recipes: Cherry Mallow Salad, 1966

Photo by Stephanie Butler

It's time for Retro Recipes! Brought to you from the capable kitchen of Eat Me Daily's Stephanie Butler, each week revisits a preparation from the past that straddles the line between ingenious and absurd. This week: Cherry Mallow Salad.

As this is a column dedicated to culinary misfires of years past, it was only a matter of time before we got around to Jell-O. Since the 1920s, Jell-O has been molded into sweet desserts, savory side dishes, and pretty much everything in between. Enter Cherry Mallow Salad: this recipe from the Better Homes And Gardens cookbook (the final one we'll look at after our earlier adventures with clam puffs and ham logs) encapsulates everything we love to hate about the jiggly product. This dessert contains not only Jell-O, but two different canned fruits, marshmallows, cream cheese, and whipped cream.

Cherry Mallow Salad is not for the faint of heart. What really sold me on the salad was the multi-layered process. You start with the RED LAYER (caps are theirs, not mine), chilling raspberry Jell-O and various fillings until firm. Then you add the FLUFFY GREEN LAYER and let the whole thing set. Any food with a FLUFFY GREEN LAYER is good by me, so I stocked up on canned fruit and mini marshmallows and began to get acquainted with America’s Favorite Dessert.

Photo by Stephanie Butler

The story behind the jiggle

Jell-O is famous for the jiggle, but what exactly gives it that certain bounce? It’s gelatin, a substance derived from animal parts rich in collagen. Various skins, bones, and connective tissues are all used to make gelatin. This does, unfortunately, put a damper on Jell-O for the vegetarians, although seaweed-derived alternatives like agar and carrageenan will serve a veggie gelatin dessert fix. As Bill Cosby himself could tell you, the term “Jell-O” first appeared in 1897, when a New York pharmacist named Pearle B. Wait added fruit flavorings to gelatin powder. The first flavors are still some of Jell-O’s most popular: strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon.

Jell-O salad as we know it became popular in the 40s and 50s, as a cheap family treat that stretched out fruits, dairy products, and other expensive foodstuffs into dishes that could feed a crowd. While sweet Jell-O salads still hold a place at many tables, especially around the holidays, savory Jell-o salads have gone the way of the dodo bird. This explains why former Jell-O flavors like Italian Salad, Mixed Vegetable, and Seasoned Tomato are no longer available on supermarket shelves. (Though I, for one, would pay good money for a Seasoned Tomato Bloody Mary Jell-o shot.)

Photo by Stephanie Butler

Making the salad

There's really not too much to the making of a Jell-O salad, it's possible that therein lies the appeal. I began this project, as the recipe suggested, with the RED LAYER. This seemed simple, just prepare a box of raspberry Jell-o as directed, and add a can of cherries. The layer sat overnight to firm up, and the next day I prepared to fluff up a storm. The FLUFFY GREEN LAYER called for lime Jell-O mixed with the heated syrup from a can of crushed pineapple. That liquid got blended with cream cheese, mayonnaise (lord love the 60s), and the pineapple fruit, mini marshmallows were added and then the whole thing chilled until partly set. I poured the green over the red, set my Bundt in the fridge, and sat down with an episode of Mad Men and a martini, just to get in the spirit of things. Two hours of setting later, my plain and fluffy layers were all ready to go. I ran the Bundt under some warm water to release the Jell-o from the pan, and unmolded my shimmering, shimmying salad onto a plate. Yup, there were two layers, and one looked decidedly lighter than the other.

Photo by Stephanie Butler

The surprising allure of the fluffy green layer

I tasted the red layer first. I only eat raspberry Jell-o when I’m too sick for Saltines and too well for Gatorade, so I don’t have the best feelings about it. The cherries didn’t exactly do culinary wonders for the Jell-o, either. They tasted like fruity tin cans. I expected better things form the fluffy green layer, and I wasn’t disappointed. I tasted pineapple, lime, cream cheese, even the mayonnaise. The tartness of the dairy kept the sweet from being cloying, and balanced the sugar of the raspberry layer. The marshmallows gave an extra little fluff, and the pineapple added some much-needed texture.

I’m certainly not saying you should make Cherry Mallow Salad instead of your granny’s prize-winning cranberry-walnut celery mold this summer, nor am I validating at all the tinned taste of a mouthful of canned cherries. I’m just saying that my heart belongs to you, FLUFFY GREEN LAYER, and I don’t care who knows it.

Cherry Mallow Salad

From America's Favorite Recipes from Better Homes and Gardens, 1966 edition

RED LAYER: Dissolve 1 package raspberry Jell-o in 1 cup boiling water. Add 1 cup cold water, chill until partially set. Add one 1 pound can pitted cherries, drained and halved. Pour into mold. Chill until almost firm.

FLUFFY GREEN LAYER: Drain one 1 pound can crushed pineapple, reserving syrup (1 cup). Tp syrup add one package lime Jell-o, heat and stir until dissolved. Add 3 ounces cream cheese, softened, and 1/2 cup mayonnaise, beat until smooth with electric or rotary beater. Stir in 1/2 cup cold water, reserved pineapple, and 1/2 cup tiny marshmallows, chill until partially set. Whip 1/2 cup heavy cream, fold into lime mixture, spread on red layer. Chill.

Serves 9.

–Stephanie Butler

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