June Juanico introduced me to wine jelly about 20 years ago after she became friends with my mom. June is the author of "Elvis: In the Twilight of Memory," and she was Elvis Presley's girlfriend in 1955 and 1956.
When my niece, Blakelyn, was just a little thing still in elementary school, she and my mom loved nothing more than to pile up with popcorn and watch old movies. From Shirley Temple to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they watched nearly every film with song and dance from the Golden Age of cinema. Blakelyn was enthralled not only by the movies themselves but also with hearing mom recount all of the behind-the-scenes, Hollywood stories that accompanied them.
Once they made it through the '30s and '40s, it was time for Elvis and the musical movies of the '50s. Even so many years after his death and despite Blakelyn being only around 6- or 7 years-old at the time, The King's charisma, charm and talent moved her deeply. She was immediately obsessed with all things Elvis, his music and his movies. Her enthusiasm rekindled my mom's prior Elvis-mania from her younger days, and thus was born their quest to meet any remaining people they could who had actually known Elvis during his lifetime.
Blakelyn and mom visited Elvis' childhood home in Tupelo, Miss., and they also made several pilgrimages to Graceland Mansion in Tennessee. They managed to meet a cook here and a housekeeper there, each encouraging and happy to give an opinion about where to go next to meet another person with a first-hand account of Elvis.
The two struck gold once they found out about Gulf Hills, a resort built in the late '20s where Elvis spent a good deal of time. Located just outside of Biloxi, Miss., in Ocean Springs, it was hardly an hour away from where they lived in Mobile, Ala. They booked a trip for a long weekend as quickly as they could, knowing it was practically in their own backyard.
Through research, luck, determination and charm, Blakelyn and mom found June still living in her hometown of Biloxi. Their quest came to a close and a true friendship was born. More than 20 years later, June and mom have remained very good friends into their 80's.
It was summertime when June excitedly offered to bring her homemade wine jelly with her to what had become her regular visit to see my mom, who had recently moved to Fairhope, Ala. When I was told about it, I assumed she was bringing "jelly" i.e. something like jam in a jar, definitely a condiment.
I soon learned that it was a dessert. June explained that long before the brand Jell-O was a household staple, desserts made from gelatin were referred to as "jellies," and they were quite elaborate, impressive creations. Upon first hearing of it, I had never dreamed her jelly was a dessert. Well, it was love at first bite.
Since tasting wine jelly for the first time, I've made it using many different types of wine, from Madeira and sherry to all sorts of reds. It never disappoints; in fact, I've never served it without being asked for the recipe, which I admit is embarrassingly simple. It makes the perfect "little something sweet" to have at your backyard barbecue, but it's equally perfect dressed up for a less casual affair. It reminds me of that little black dress that hits in all the right places: It looks unassuming on the hanger, but when you put it on, it's a stunner.
I've never served it without being asked for the recipe, which I admit is embarrassingly simple.
According to how you serve wine jelly, it can be casual and fun like a wine lover's version of a Jell-O shot, or you can dress it up in elegant slices alongside berries and fresh whipped cream. And because you can make it with your choice of wine, you can pair it with virtually anything. Once you try it, you'll understand exactly how versatile it is and see just how many variations are possible.
This dessert will create quite the buzz, both literally and figuratively. First, you don't heat the wine, so it doesn't lose any of its alcohol. Second, because it's so delicious and so different, it will instantly take over all table conversation with oohs and ahhs and lots of questions about the recipe. It's hard to believe that only four ingredients can create such a wonder.
I wish I could say June and Elvis enjoyed wine jelly together during their romance back in the '50s, but that isn't the case as far as I know. What I do know is that every time I make this dessert, I think of June and the fun I had hanging out with her and my mom in Fairhope, laughing and listening to their stories each time I crashed their "Girls Night In" parties. They were both in their 60's at that moment in time, which I used to think was old. Now, I can see 60 on my own horizon, and I don't think it sounds so bad. Age is only a number (so I've been told), but I want to pack as much life into my years as possible. June certainly has done so.
Perhaps because wine jelly has its roots from such a bygone era (the 1890's) coupled with my own memories of eating Jell-O as a child, I become sentimental and nostalgic when I make it. Mostly, I'm simply reminded of June. I was around her the most when she was in her 60's and 70's and still shining so brightly. Those memories remind me to celebrate life today, to be open to making new friends, to laugh, to share and create memories filled with good food and drink — in the case of wine jelly, food and drink are one — and most of all to LOVE!
Gelatin/Gelatin substitute for vegans and vegetarians
Wine jelly can be made using agar agar, a seaweed-based substitute for gelatin commonly used by vegans and vegetarians. Simply use the package directions to determine how much to use based on the amount of liquid in the recipe.
Full disclosure, I've never used this substitution, but I have a friend who made it with agar agar, and it turned out just fine.
Choose any wine you like, including Madeira or sherry. Between the sugar/sweetener and the fresh lemon juice, every batch you make will be delicious and unique.
I prefer less-sweet desserts, while others enjoy theirs more sweet. You can easily adjust the sugar quantity to what you think is just right. Taste before refrigerating and add more sugar or sugar substitute if desired.
I choose to use the granular version of the sugar replacement, Swerve, an erythritol sweetener. Despite having a chemical-sounding name, it's actually made of a naturally sweet-tasting fiber. Check it out if you're so inclined; it's used 1:1 to replace sugar.
Remember: You'll need to make sure your sweetener of choice is dissolved. You don't want any grainy, undissolved sugar in this dessert.
Recipe: June's Wine Jelly
- 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 2/3 cup hot water
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 3-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup red wine, sherry or Madeira
In a small bowl, stir to combine the gelatin with cold water. Allow to stand 5 minutes.
Boil the water and pour over the sugar, stirring until fully dissolved.
Add the gelatin while the water is still hot (but not boiling), stirring until dissolved.
Add the wine, then add the lemon juice a bit at a time. Taste and add more lemon juice if desired.
Pour into individual containers or a decorative bowl.
Cover and refrigerate until fully firm and set — 2 hours to overnight.
Upon serving, there's nothing wrong with adding a bit of fresh whipped cream and/or berries for a lovely presentation.
Some like to add fruit to the mixture before refrigerating. While that also works, I typically prefer to add anything extra once it's plated, leaving the jelly simply as is.
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