“So if I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s a family tradition” ~ Hank Williams Jr.
Some foods you make because you love them. Some foods you make because they are the traditional. And some foods you make because you love the face your sister makes when you set it down on the table.
If you’re exceptionally lucky, then you can accomplish all three in a single side dish.
Obviously there’s not really eyeballs in the Jello salad (although given previous entries such as chicken feet and fish heads – I wouldn’t really blame you for thinking that there might be). It is a layered Jello salad with cherry and orange gelatins, cream cheese, and embedded cherries and sliced cocktail olives. It’s the sliced olives that make it look like the Jello is staring at you.
Yes, I said olives.
Yes, I am aware of The Gallery of Regrettable Foods.
My sister prides herself on having never – in over thirty years of holidays – eaten a bite of The Jello Salad. We should have been suspicious the year she volunteered to make it for the Easter buffet. Of course there were no olives in her version and she had “run out” of cream cheese before putting the recipe together. Halfway through the pan of Jello my sister asked if any of us had to drive home any time soon. Not having any cocktail olives on hand, she substituted vodka. That was a very festive Easter brunch.
It actually is tasty though. I have even gotten requests from my in-laws to make this for holiday dinners. Although they’re southern so they call it “congealed salad” which in this yinzer’s opinion does zero to make it sound more appealing.
Another part of the tradition is the fierce argument over the layers. Do the cherries go in the cherry jello layer or the orange layer? Do you use the cherry juice to make the orange jello? Do the cherries or the olives go in the top layer? The ingredients can pretty much be swapped around without penalty. But do keep the cream cheese in the middle.
It’s a recipe I make half because I like it, half because it’s tradition (and all the happy memories that glom onto traditions), and half because it’s fun and attention getting – especially when there’s someone new to dinner.
This is actually one of my trickier recipes. More years than not something goes awry and I’ve ended up with minor disasters like floating cream cheese or larger disasters like an ungodly mess of jello all over the bottom shelf of my fridge (dripping into the meat drawer and splashing along the back wall). So if you’re going to tackle this, pay attention to the details of technique. Learn from my mistakes.
On to the food!
Traditional Holiday Jello Salad
Procs: One 9×13 pan. And plenty for the three or four people at dinner who will actually eat on it
Time: About 30 minutes of active time over 24 hours.
Equipment: 9×13 pan, glass if you have it
- 1 large box of Cherry Jello
- 1 large box of Orange Jello
- 1 package of Cream Cheese
- 1 can of Queen Anne Cherries (Sweet Cherries in syrup can be used if you can’t find the Queen Anne Cherries – but I don’t prefer them because they are too sweet)
- 1 jar of Sliced Spanish Olives with pimentos
- 3 cups of Water, divided.
- Boil 1 cup of water and add it to a bowl with the Cherry Jello. Stir until the powder is dissolved.
- Drain the juice of the can of cherries and reserve. Add enough water to the juice to make a half-cup of liquid. Pour this into the pan. (This is less than is called for on the box because you will need a firmer Jello to spread the cream cheese on.)
- Add the cherries to the Jello and place the pan in the fridge. Arrange the cherries to have roughly even distribution (the waves created when moving the pan will have moved them all around).
- Cover and let chill overnight.
- Bring the cream cheese to room temperature and whip it with a fork or beater until it is more easily spreadable. (I don’t like pre-whipped cream cheese because of the carageenan).
- Spread the cream cheese on the layer of cherry Jello. Cover and return to the fridge for a couple of hours.
- Boil 1 cup of water and add it to a bowl with the Orange Jello. Stir until the powder is dissolved.
- Add a half-cup of very cold water. Place bowl in the fridge for 1 hour until it’s starting to get a bit set and sludgy.
- Leave the pan in the fridge. Pour the orange Jello over the back of a spoon over the cream cheese layer.
- Add two or three handfuls of drained olive slices. Let set until meal time.
ProTip: Jello does not adhere to cream cheese. Cream cheese also floats. If you disturb the cream cheese layer with heat or agitation while adding the final layer of cream cheese it will float to the top of the Jello and look very unattractive. This is also why I have instructions for making it as a casserole. The ring mold is attractive for presentation, but the top layer slid right off of every serving.