Jelly Week

A person needs a hobby to keep them from getting all nutty in the head. Might be hunting Squirtles, rocking out at Zumba, or knitting formalwear for their ferret—all valid life choices. Mine is figuring out how to make jelly out of various commercially available beverages. Do they all work? Nah. Are they all sources of unparalleled taste pleasure? Depends on how you feel about Red Bull, Mountain Dew, or Genesee Cream Ale to begin with. The jellification process is marvelous, but not magical. It won’t suddenly render Beast Ice jelly an essential part of your breakfast ritual if you didn’t dig it anyway, but I do guarantee that it’ll make you crack a smile or ten while you’re bringing it to a rolling boil.

Let’s blame my dad*; he’s a strong, excellent man and he can take it. He’s also a retired chemist who had a penchant for cooking up wine jelly to bring as a host gift to Christmas parties when I was a kid. The mild awe and sly grins of the recipients imprinted deeply upon me, so now I’m a grownup lady who’s been known to show up at parties bearing mason jars of spreadable Four Loko. It’s just fun, and who couldn’t use an extra swipe of that on their English muffin right about now?

Honestly I don’t know how breakfast spreads got so prissy in the first place. You’re vulnerable in the morning, rumpled and crusty-lidded, and the purpose of early-day food should be to meet you where you are and fuel your transformation into the person you need to be to face the outside world. A fussy, beribboned pot of jam may actually be dressed better and set more firmly than you, and that’s a small humiliation you can do without. But if you craft jelly out of a caffeinated drink, that kick doesn't get cooked out—so it's almost like your toast is getting to work before you. No, thank you, delicious science.

I first learned how to make jelly a few years back when I was trying not to lose my mind. Self-doubt and deep anxiety (fostered by an increasingly erratic boss) had set in at my job, and I took a week off to recalibrate. But since I tend to do a piss-poor job at actually letting go and relaxing, I gave myself a task: Pickle and jelly all the things in all the land. I preserved peaches, beans, okra, cherries, tongue, made chow-chow and corncob wine, chutney, nasturtium pesto, and creepy English lunchmeat. As the pile of jars grew, so did my confidence. I may be an incompetent boob in the workplace, but at least in this kitchen, I can show proof of my worth.

And around 2 a.m., I ran out of things to can. Every single bit of preservable produce was now safely imprisoned in glass and metal, and a reasonable human might have called it a night. Seeing as there were none of those around me to slap the jar funnel out of my hand, I grabbed a full-sugar Cheerwine and crossed my fingers. To my great shock, it set into jelly by the next day. So did Coke, ginger beer, and a random Smirnoff Ice I found in the back of the fridge. It was a small, silly victory to be sure, but the nexus of kitchen science and comedy snapped me out of a nasty funk and the jars were a hell of a lot of fun to hand out to friends and colleagues. I kept a jar of limited holiday edition apple pie-flavored Snapple jelly on my desk like a stress toy and palmed it creepily in times of particular upset. I spread it on toast before the interview for my next job and I felt mighty.

There are very few miracles—major or minor—available to us mortals, and precious few opportunities to make someone giggle before noon. Might as well do it with a jiggle and a smile.

*Note: I ran this notion by my dad and in his words, "I have never had a Red Bull and will not, and the thought of it as a jelly is frightening." (Sorry Dad.) Dr. Kinsman also says, "I used pectin as it is widely available in supermarkets and is cleared for use in food. There are other gelling agents suitable for food, but pectin is a natural choice for jelly. You have to have a high enough sugar content, and there has to be some acid present. If the sugar/fruit solution is not tart enough you add some lemon juice. I could easily gel the juice from canned fruit, but I don't know about soft drinks. They are acid and probably enough so, but is there enough sugar? Experimentation would be needed to find the right levels."

Basic Soda or Energy Drink Jelly

  • Yields: Around 6-7 half-pint jars

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Heat jars in simmering water until it's time to fill them. (Hot liquid may cause a room temperature jar to crack and/or explode.)

  2. In a saucepan, boil soda or juice until it's reduced down to 2 cups. Stir in water, sugar, and lemon juice until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved, and bring to a boil. Add butter to reduce foaming. Stir in pectin and boil furiously for 30 seconds while stirring. Remove from heat and skim excess muck from the top.

  3. Working one jar at a time, pour the liquid into jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. (Note: A jar funnel significantly cuts down on mess and potential jelly-on-skin burn.) Wipe the rim, place the lid on and close the band finger-tight. Return to the water and process for five minutes.

  4. Let the jars cool for at least 24 hours before checking how the jelly has set. Depending on the beverages used, this may take up to two full weeks.

  5. Note: Do not despair if the set is much softer than commercial jelly. Full sugar beverages fare better, and high-fructose corn syrup is a wild card, set-wise. You are still a good person with an adventurous soul.

Basic Beer or Malt Liquor Jelly

  • Yields: Around 6-7 half-pint jars

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Heat jars in simmering water until it's time to fill them.

  2. Stir beverage, sugar, and lemon juice together and bring to a boil. Add butter to reduce foaming. Stir in pectin and boil hard for one minute while stirring. Remove from heat and skim excess muck from the top.

  3. Working one jar at a time, pour the liquid into jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe the rim, place the lid on and close the band finger-tight. Return to the water and process for ten minutes.

  4. Let the jars cool for at least 24 hours before checking how the jelly has set. Depending on the beverages used, this may take up to two full weeks.