Americans have long valued the ease created by new technology, and innovation in the kitchen is no exception. Cooking advances were particularly ubiquitous during the nineteenth century, with the inventions of the icebox and cook stove, newfangled ingredients like baking soda, and food processing advances such as canned goods. Powdered gelatin was one of these convenience items. Today we typically think of gelatin as a fruity dessert or molded salad, a colorful and quivering mass studded with fruit and maybe nuts, easily made by opening a packet or two of Jell-O.

But before the mid-1800s, gelatin, or “jelly” as it was often called, was created via a lengthy process that involved making a thick, gelatinous stock from animal products rich in natural gelatin such as veal knuckle, calves feet, poultry bones, and fish trimmings. Most of the time, this gelatin was used to make decorative savory molds of cold cooked foods, including fish, poultry, meat and vegetables. The jelly encased around the cooked meat not only looked pretty, but it prevented air and bacteria from reaching the meat and turning it rancid, therefore enabling the display of these fancy dishes, like museum pieces under glass.

But during the Victorian era, these fancy dishes moved into the sweets category as well. Jelly desserts were fashioned out of molds ranging from basic forms such as oval, round, or cylindrical, to intricate designs in the shape of nobility, pets, and even famous locations in London. Some were filled with Bavarian cream or fruit, others featured a vertical rainbow of colors. Special molds were available to produce layers within layers. There was also blancmange—a sweet, vanilla-flavored milk-based pudding-jelly combination.

All of these recipes became quicker and easier to produce when a man named Peter Cooper (who also invented the steam locomotive) took out the first U.S. patent for a gelatin dessert powder he called Portable Gelatin in 1845. Even though this must have been a huge time-saver, it wasn’t until Charles Knox introduced granulated gelatin in 1894 that the idea really took off and the brand became somewhat of a household word. Kraft Foods’ Jell-O came soon after, created by a carpenter named Pearle Wait in 1897. Chef Christopher Kimball refers to these powdered gelatins as “the best example of the time-saving trend offered by commercial food producers” in his book, Fannie’s Last Supper.

Anna Maxwell must have appreciated the ease of this new ingredient, as her journal contains seven different recipes that use powdered gelatin. The chocolate jelly I chose to make sounded very interesting –like a blancmange, only swapping chocolate for the vanilla:

CHOCOLATE JELLY.- Four small cakes of chocolate, grated, and one and a half pints of milk, boiled together. Then add sugar and vanilla to taste, and one box of gelatin dissolved in a little water. Boil all together for a few minutes, and then set away to cool.

Whenever I start recreating a historic recipe, I always look for similar recipes in period cookbooks to get a comparison of methods and ingredients. For this one, there were not too many, but there was one from Good Housekeeping magazine (1888) that was a good guide. In addition, chocolate jelly seems to be a popular Indian dish, so I reviewed these recipes as well.  My revised recipe is as follows. Delicious!

 Chocolate Jelly

  • Two packets unflavored gelatin (like Knox)
  • 4 oz. baking chocolate
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • ½ cup sugar
  1. In a small mixing bowl, sprinkle gelatin over ½ cup water.  Stir and let stand for 1 minute, then add 1/2 cup boiling water, stir constantly until gelatin is completely dissolved.
  2. Heat chocolate in glass dish in the microwave at 30-second intervals until melted. Let cool briefly.
  3. Warm milk on the stove and add chocolate, vanilla and sugar.
  4. Pour into a mold (or individual dishes) and let set. Unmold onto a plate and serve with fresh whipped cream.

Sources: Fannie’s Last Supper by Christopher Kimball; The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink by Andrew F. Smith; Encyclopedia of Food and Culture by Solomon H. Katz

Blog post by Becky Diamond