Jelly is almost always associated with children's parties but it's too good to be exclusively for youngsters.
Our friends Rob and Angela understand this. To round off a family Sunday lunch recently, Angela served a shimmering dome of glorious jelly, its curved shoulders wobbling as if it were chuckling in self-congratulation for sporting three fruity, coloured layers. Only the stony-hearted could see a jelly and not feel a jolt of childish happiness.
British diners seemingly tolerate rather than adore jelly. Either it reminds you of the synthetic fruit blocks of childhood or you appreciate its soft texture and seductive flavour. Texture and flavour are the two crucial keys to successful jelly, along with careful measuring and attention to acidity, which affects the firmness of the setting point.
Extracting (or even buying) natural-tasting juice is the first building block. Leaf gelatine, soaked in iced water until floppily soft, gives the best results for setting it. Vegetarian alternatives such as pectin or carrageen, a seaweed derivative, can make suitable substitutes. Experiment with the ratio of base liquid to gelatine to get a yielding texture you enjoy. If you're turning it out, the jelly will need to be firmer, and serving it in glasses allows for a softer texture.
Explore savoury versions too. Apple and lemongrass jelly makes a delicate partner for cheese, and cucumber jelly, spiked with horseradish, is wonderful with cold oysters or crab.
Orange and Campari jelly
5 leaves of gelatine
500ml freshly squeezed orange juice
55g caster sugar
1. Place the gelatine leaves in a suitable container filled with iced water and soak until the leaves are totally soft and floppy. This will take at least 7 or 8 minutes.
2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a pan and warm gently so the sugar dissolves, then remove from the heat.
3. Lift the gelatine out of the water by cupping the leaves with your fingers then carefully squeeze out all the excess water. Add the leaves to the fruit base and whisk to dissolve.
4. Divide the jelly between glasses or cups. You can layer the jelly with fruit as you go if desired, such as melon or sliced orange, but take your time, allowing the jelly to set as you go before adding the next layer. This will give the illusion of fruit floating in the jelly, otherwise the fruit will sink to the bottom. Finish each glass just before serving with a little whipped cream and some chopped nuts or grated chocolate.
Rhubarb and ginger jelly
Though not normally one for name-dropping, I can say I got this recipe from Sir Terence Conran when I was head chef at one of his restaurants. Like all his favourite things, it combines simplicity and freshness.
500g rhubarb, chopped into 1in-long pieces
200g caster sugar
4 leaves of gelatine
1. Place the rhubarb in an enamelled or stainless-steel saucepan and add a dash of water to stop it sticking. Simmer gently for 15 minutes until the fruit breaks up into strings, stirring to help it along.
2. Suspend a jelly bag (or a strainer lined with muslin) over a bowl and transfer the mix to it so it drips. Leave it to drip like this, without trying to help it at all, for six hours or overnight. Discard the solids from the bag and measure the liquid in a measuring jug. Add enough water to bring it up to 500ml. Pour this juice into a pan and add the sugar, warming it gently to dissolve.
3. Soak the gelatine leaves in iced water until totally soft then stir them into the warm liquid to dissolve. Do not boil. Transfer the jelly into dariole moulds or ramekins. To turn out, dip briefly in hot water and turn out on to chilled plates. If memory serves, Sir Terence liked his jelly with fresh or poached fruits and warm madeleines.
Apple and lemongrass jelly
400ml good-quality apple juice
100ml muscat or sweet wine
1 stick of lemongrass
5 leaves of gelatine
1. Warm the apple juice and wine together; while waiting, chop the lemongrass roughly then add it to the liquid. Cover with cling film to infuse then leave to cool. Once the liquid has infused, reheat it then strain it into a clean pan.
2. Soak the gelatine leaves until totally soft then whisk into the warm liquid (do not boil). Pour the mix on to a tray lined with clingfilm or into a tub to set. Once cold, chop the jelly into chunks and serve them with hard and strong flavoured cheeses.