A Gift Not Given

As a host and hostess gift for an imminent house party, we bought the coolest antique molds. Both of us thought they were charming, and knew our hosts would love them, too.

They are small, rectangular molds, each with a barn swallow embossed at the bottom. We both love swallows, a bird that reminds us of a magical day in San Gimignano, Italy, when the noon bells in many churches in that ancient fortified city began to ring. Suddenly, the sky above the silent and empty street was filled with the sonorous roar and clattering tintinnabulation... and startled swallows! They poured from the belfries to glide and swoop elegantly across the cerulean blue sky.

That memory clinched it; we couldnt part with the intended gift. No one besides us was getting those molds. We returned to the antiques shop and found another gift.

Upon getting home, Mark said he wanted to use them to make molded tomato aspic.

Aspic! You know; that old-fashioned dish served at ladies' summer luncheons? Adult Jell-O Jigglers? He had an unexpected craving. Perhaps it was stirred by memories of his mothers aspic, when, in his childhood, chestnut-breasted swallows nested annually among the beams of the old carriage house out back.

Aspic has gone quite a distance from its origins, now that commercially-prepared gelatin is regularly available.

When first made in the late 1300s, marrow bones were rendered to create a gelatin that was used to encase meats, poultry and vegetables into a loaf bound together by the semi-clear, flavorful, aspic.

The word "aspic" alone brings crinkled faces (even from people who have never tasted it),

Admittedly, there are some not-so-wonderful variations out there, made with lemon or lime Jell-O, or with a cream cheese layer, or dolloped with an ill-chosen commercial mayonnaise.

But, as for the standard served at a 1940s ladies' luncheon, we found we love it!

It is cool and refreshing on a hot summer day, and makes for an elegant first course or, yes, a light lunch, with or without the ladies in hats.

Here is our spiced version. Plain is lovely, too - you can simply omit whatever spices you wish or lack, to suit your taste.

~ David

Spiced Tomato Aspic

12 ounces tomato juice (low sodium is fine)
1 envelope unflavored powdered gelatin
zest if 1 untreated lemon
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 scant teaspoon dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, optional
1/8 teaspoon celery seed
1/8 teaspoon dried ground mustard
1/8 teaspoon ground Aleppo pepper or a pinch of cayenne
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
large pinch Chinese five spice powder
large pinch ground coriander
large pinch ground allspice
olive oil, for molds

In a large bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the tomato juice with the gelatin; let stand for 5 minutes.

In a saucepan, combine the remaining ingredients except the olive oil and heat just until simmering. Add the hot mixture to the gelatin mixture and stir until the gelatin dissolves completely.

Lightly oil 4 molds or ramekins. Spoon gelatin mixture into the molds/ramekins, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Unmold the aspics onto plates and serve garnished with crisp lettuce or celery leaves. (If they don't unmold easily, dip the molds into hot tap water for 5-10 seconds and try again.)

Serves 4.

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