Food & Drink: Getting set for the perfect jelly: No great shakes with gelatine? Our cookery writer firms up the options for a mould-making mixture

Writing about gelatine makes me nervous. Recipes for gelatine ('a colourless, odourless substance extracted from the bones and cartilage of animals,' says Larousse) seem perversely prone to printing errors. And not just minor ones such as 'floor' where 'flour' is obviously meant. For instance, the normal sachet of powdered gelatine weighs 0.4oz: not, as appeared in one recipe, 4oz. I received letters from two readers who had great difficulty getting all that gelatine to dissolve in a few tablespoonfuls of hot water.

In fact, the ratio of gelatine to liquid in any jelly, mousse, cold souffle or terrine, is not set in stone. What I usually work to is: one sachet of powdered gelatine to a pint (570ml) of liquid (excluding whipped cream or egg whites to be added later). One sachet is fine for a jelly that must be solid enough to unmould on a relatively cool day. However, if the sun is beaming down, then you would be wise to add another half-sachet (0.2oz, 6g) to hold it firm, particularly if whipped cream has been added, too. If the jelly is to be set, say, in wine glasses and the weather is not too hot, you could get away with reducing the amount of gelatine slightly to produce a more delicate mixture.

Should you be using leaf gelatine, work to weight, not number. The thickness of leaves varies, so a mere leaf count is not good enough. Dissolve by the method on the packet.

It is not just misprints that have caused problems. After one perfectly printed recipe, I got a battering from a reader for using the wrong method of dissolving the gelatine (actually, more or less the method the manufacturers recommend). And I found hers 100 per cent foolproof. Since dissolving the stuff properly is an essential first step, I shall summarise the methods I know:

1. Sprinkle 1 sachet powdered gelatine evenly over 3-4tbs hot but not boiling water in a small saucepan. Leave to soften for about 3 mins, then stir to dissolve. If stubborn specks of gelatine remain, warm the mixture gently, without boiling, stirring until quite clear.

2. The reader's method: as before, but use cold water. Leave for a minute, then warm the gelatine gently, stirring constantly until completely dissolved, without letting it boil.

3. Put the contents of 1 sachet of gelatine into a teacup and spoon the hot water on to it. Leave for 2-3 mins, then stir.

Of course, if the liquid to be set can stand heating, or is already hot, the gelatine can be sprinkled straight on to it, left to soften, then stirred in.

The trick of mixing the dissolved gelatine into the jelly liquid is to get both at the same temperature, ideally tepid or lukewarm. Mix a tablespoon of the liquid into the gelatine, followed by a second, third and fourth. Now the whole lot can be safely tipped back into the main bowl without fear of coagulation.

If you intend to turn out a free-standing jelly or mousse, prepare the mould either by rinsing it out with cold water and leaving it damp, or by brushing it lightly with a little tasteless oil (use almond oil for puddings). To unmould, dip the mould briefly into a bowl of hot water, quickly loosen the edges with the tip of a knife, then invert on to a plate and shake. If you do not hear that satisfying plop as it slides down, shake again and, if necessary, give it a second dip.

CRAB MOUSSE WITH CUCUMBER SALAD

Serve this as a rich summer first course with thin brown bread and butter, or as a main course for a light lunch. The cucumber salad is an essential partner, as it tempers the creaminess of the mousse.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 10oz (285g) crab meat (mixed brown and white)

a pinch of sugar

1tbs lemon juice

1/2 tbs Worcestershire sauce

dash of Tabasco

5fl oz (150ml) good fish stock

1-1 1/2 sachets (0.4-0.6oz, 11-17g) gelatine

1/2 pint (290ml) whipping cream

2 egg whites

salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg

For the cucumber salad: 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced thinly

4tbs white wine vinegar

2tsp salt

2tbs sugar

1 1/2 tbs chopped dill

pepper

Preparation: Chop the white flakes of crab and mix with the brown meat. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg, a pinch of sugar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and a few shakes of Tabasco. Melt the gelatine into the stock by whatever means you prefer and leave until tepid. Stir in the crabmeat mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more lemon, Worcestershire sauce or Tabasco as needed. Make the flavourings quite exaggerated as the cream will soften them. Chill until the mixture has the consistency of egg white.

Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks and fold into the crab mixture. Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold those in, too. Spoon into a dampened 2 1/2-pint (1 1/2-litre) mould and smooth down lightly. Leave in the fridge to set for at least six hours.

To make the salad, mix the cucumber with the vinegar, salt and sugar and set aside for 1 hour or more. Just before serving, drain off the liquid and mix with the dill. Turn the mousse out and surround with cucumber salad.

PEACH, COCONUT AND LIME CREAM

Coconut milk and yoghurt provide the body of this pudding, with peaches and lime to flavour them. Serve on its own, or with more sliced fresh peaches, or other soft summer fruit.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) unsweetened desiccated coconut

4 ripe peaches, skinned, pitted and roughly chopped

juice of 1 1/2 limes

3oz (85g) castor sugar

7fl oz (200ml) Greek yoghurt

1 sachet (0.4oz, 11g) powdered gelatine

3tbs hot water

icing sugar

Preparation: Take a tablespoon of the coconut and dry-fry it in a small, heavy pan over a high heat until lightly toasted. Reserve. Pour 1 pint (570ml) of boiling water over the rest of the coconut. Whiz briefly in a processor, then strain, squeezing the coconut to extract the last drops of 'milk'. Pour into a measuring jug. You will need a generous 1/2 pint (300ml), so if it is under, repeat the process and top up.

Wipe out the processor and process the peaches with the castor sugar. Mix with the coconut milk and lime juice, then strain. Taste and, if it needs more sweetening, stir in a little icing sugar.

Soften the gelatine in the hot water in whatever fashion suits you. When tepid, mix the peach-and-coconut into the gelatine (method above), and then stir until evenly mixed. Chill until it has the consistency of thick egg white, then fold in the yoghurt. Spoon into dampened 1 1/2-pint (1-litre) mould. Return to the fridge to chill for at least 4 hours.

Unmould just before serving and sprinkle with toasted coconut.

TAYBERRY AND REDCURRANT JELLY

This wonderful jelly is definitely for adults, not children. I like it best with tayberries and redcurrants, but you can substitute black or white currants, or double the quantity of tayberries.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) tayberries or boysenberries, hulled

8oz (225g) redcurrants

8oz (225g) castor sugar

6fl oz (190ml) fruity red wine

1 sachet (0.4oz, 11g) gelatine

Preparation: Put the fruit into a pan with the sugar and 6tbs water. Bring gently to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for 5 mins, then strain, pushing through as much juice as possible. While still hot, sprinkle the gelatine over the juice, leave for 3 mins to soften, then stir to dissolve.

Stir in the wine. Pour into 6 wine glasses and leave to set in the fridge.

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