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There’s Always Room for (Almond) Jello

An oldie but goodie Chinese dessert.


Like most everyone, my first taste of jello as a kid was of the wiggly green (lime) or red (cherry) variety.

But my heart belongs to the white type.

Namely, almond jello. As in the Chinese version so often offered at dim sum or — if you’re very lucky — at the end of a banquet dinner (just say “no” to red bean soup!).

It was cut into little cubes, spooned into a Chinese rice bowl, and topped with canned fruit cocktail, lychees or mandarin oranges, with their sugary syrup, too.

OK, farm-to-table it was not.

But after a multitude of warm, savory dishes, it sure hit the spot. It was cold, a fun texture, heady with the taste of almond extract, and sweet from the canned fruit and thick syrup.

As a kid, I would make it all the time at home. It’s that easy. If you can make regular Jell-O, you can surely make this with your eyes closed.

I admit it’s been years since I’ve made it, though. My love for baking won out, and I’m more apt to be baking a batch of cookies than stirring up a pan of flavored gelatin.

But Danielle Chang got me in the mood to revisit this old-school Chinese dessert.

Chang is the founder of the LuckyRice festival, a celebration of Asian cultures and cuisines, which takes place in seven cities, including San Francisco.

This recipe for “Almond ‘Tofu’ with Fruit Cocktail” is featured in her new cookbook, “Lucky Rice: Stories and Recipes From Night Markets, Feasts, and Family Tables” (Clarkson Potter), of which I received a review copy.

Contrary to the name, it’s not made of tofu at all. It just sort of looks like it a bit.

Born in Taipei and now living in New York, Chang has compiled recipes both classic and modern. Find everything from “Hawaiian Tuna Poke” and “Miso Clam Soup” to “Jewish Pastrami Egg Rolls” and “Kimchi Bloody Mary.”

Traditionally, almond jello is made with agar-agar, a gelatin-like substance made of a red algae. Agar-agar, which comes in powder, flakes or a bar form is harder to find in your neighborhood store, so Chang conveniently offers regular powdered gelatin as a substitute.

Another way to serve it.

Satisfying to the last spoonful.

Just heat water, gelatin, sugar and milk in a saucepan, then pour the mixture into a square pan to set in the refrigerator. You can also pour it into individual small bowls. Or even mix some of the fruit cocktail into the semi-set almond jello to create a mosaic effect. Then, unmold onto plates after completely set. It’s a little tricky getting the almond jello out of the bowl intact, but I found that running a small, flexible spatula around the edges helped loosen it enough to invert it onto a plate.

Chang’s version is less sweet than most. If you like it sweeter, you can always add more sugar. Or if you even less sugar, you can opt for fruit cocktail packed in juice rather than in heavy syrup, spooning some of the juice on top or around the jello.

One spoonful and you’ll agree that there’s always room for almond jello.

Especially with the Lunar New Year right around the corner.

Almond “Tofu” With Fruit Cocktail

(Serves 4)

1/4 cup sugar

4 1/2 teaspoons agar-agar powder or 4 1/2 teaspoons (about two pouches) powdered gelatin

1 1/2 cups whole milk

2 tablespoons almond extract

1 (8-ounce) can fruit cocktail or mandarin oranges in heavy syrup, chilled

Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan, and add the sugar and agar-agar (or gelatin). Stir until dissolved. Pour in the milk and the almond extract, and continue stirring until the mixture is well blended. Remove from heat.

Pour the mixture into an 8-by-8-inch square dish. Refrigerate until the dessert is starting to firm up but is not yet fully set (about 10 minutes for agar-agar, and 30 minutes for gelatin). Stir about half the can of drained fruit cocktail into the mixture, making sure it is immersed in the pudding. Chill until set. To serve, cut the chilled pudding into 1-inch cubes and divide among 4 bowls. Top each bowl with additional fruit cocktail and its syrup.

From “Lucky Rice” by Danielle Chang

More Dishes For Lunar New Year: Crispy Rice Cakes by Charles Phan

And: Hot and Sour Soup by Joanne Chang

And: Jamie Oliver’s Quick Portuguese Custard Tarts

And: Roast Chicken with Ginger and Soy-Whiskey Glaze by Jean-Georges Vongerichten

And: Two Different Almond Cookies