Jelly good show: Wibbly, wobbly and wonderful. Photograph: Colin Campbell for the Guardian
I'm guessing I have only to say the word "jelly" to bring a smile to your face. Or, if you're really slow in the mornings, perhaps I have to say "wibble wobble" as well.
Ah, jelly… So much the childhood party favourite, layered with tinned fruit, served with evaporated milk or – let joy be unconfined – ice-cream. But it was once a very grand pud indeed. In the days of expensive gelatine, and before there was a fridge in every kitchen, its presence on the dining table was a mark of sophistication and success. Well, it seems jelly is going through something of a revival. It's eager to reclaim its elegant, transparently lovely place in our hearts. London pair Bompas & Parr, self-proclaimed jellymongers, have carved, or moulded, a niche for themselves by making fabulous jellies for the fashionable crowd. And there's nothing stopping you from giving them a go at home. They may not be in the forms of castles and cathedrals, they may not fluoresce, but they will, I promise, be quiveringly delicious.
Essentially, all you need to do is make a liquid, a syrup, an infusion, sweetened and perfumed with the flavours of the season. This could include primroses or even lilacs in spring, apple or pears in autumn, citrus in winter. But, for my money, summer is the time when jelly really comes into its own, with the abundance of berries just begging to be captured in clear, jewel-like magnificence.
But here's the problem. It seems many suffer from jelly anxiety. More specifically, setting anxiety. Don't. Plunge in. There are many different setting agents around, from agar agar flakes, carrageen moss and powdered gelatine to leaf gelatine in various grades from bronze through to platinum. Pick one. Get to know it, learn how it reacts with various fruits and liquids – specifically, alcohol, which inhibits setting a bit. At River Cottage, we most often use silver-grade leaf gelatine and we have good results with it. It has bothered me for a while, though, that it has been so hard to track down an organic source of leaf gelatine, so I'm rather excited to discover that Doves Farm, the flour people, have developed a new, organic pork-based gelatine that'll go on sale later in the year .
I know you might well be tempted to take a belt-and-braces approach and just chuck in a bit more gelatine to be on the safe side. Resist, resist. You want as little as you can get away with to guarantee that seductive, melt-on-the tongue, quivering etherealness, rather than the feeling of chewing on cheap sweets. To quote Constance Spry, your concoction should "shiver like a jelly, not just hold its shape". So follow the manufacturer's instructions as to how much of the product will set how much liquid, adding a little less, if you dare, and a little more only if the jelly contains alcohol. Now there's an idea…
Sparkling strawberry jelly
"Champagne" jellies can often be, well, a bit flat. By making sure that the jelly is only just still liquid and the fizz very, very cold when you pour it in, you ensure as many bubbles as possible are captured in your fruity pud. Serves six.
150g caster sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 orange
5 gelatine leaves (we use silver-grade)
500ml sparkling wine (English, preferably)
Hull the strawberries and pop them in a pan along with the caster sugar, citrus zest and juice, and 250ml water. Simmer for five minutes, until the strawberries are soft. Strain, either through a jelly bag or tied in two thicknesses of muslin and suspended over a large pan, to get a strawberry syrup – squeeze it a bit, if you like, to get out as much syrup as possible.
Soak the gelatine in cold water for five to 10 minutes to soften. While they're softening, warm the syrup in a pan – do not let it boil; you want it just hot enough to dissolve the gelatine. Drain the gelatine leaves in a sieve for a minute, then stir into the hot, fruity liquid until they dissolve. Set aside to cool, then chill in the fridge until it's quite thick and syrupy.
While you're waiting for it to thicken, put a bottle of sparkling wine in the freezer (you want to freeze it for at least 30-40 minutes. Heresy, I know, but it works for our purposes). When both syrup and wine are very cold, pour 500ml of the sparkling wine slowly down the side of the bowl and into the jelly – the more slowly you pour, the less it will foam, which is what you want. Pour gently into a serving dish or dishes, cover and refrigerate until set, at least four hours.
Gooseberry and elderflower jelly
A pretty and delicate summer jelly. Serve with a splash of very cold double cream. Serves six to eight.
150g caster sugar
6-8 fresh elderflower heads (or 30ml elderflower cordial)
45ml white wine
5 gelatine leaves
Put the gooseberries into a non-reactive pan with the sugar and 750ml water. Warm over a medium-low heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, then simmer for five minutes or so, until the gooseberries are soft and starting to break down. Add the elderflowers and stir for a couple of minutes (if you're using cordial, hold off with that until later). Remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 20 minutes. Strain through a jelly bag, or tie in a double layer of muslin and suspend over a large pan, squeezing slightly to extract the liquor. Add the wine (and the cordial, if using). Taste, add a little more sugar, if necessary, and stir to dissolve.
Soak the gelatine for five to 10 minutes in cold water. While it's soaking, warm the gooseberry liquid until hot but not boiling. Drain the gelatine in a sieve for a minute, then stir into the gooseberry liquid until dissolved. Pour into a bowl or bowls, cool, cover and refrigerate for at least six hours.