There was a time when it seemed like almost all desserts were made with Jello, even when you wanted a fancy dessert to serve at that elegant dinner party. Jello gelatin mixes had interesting flavors, bright colors and were surprisingly versatile – and while you’re probably not going to reach for a box of Jello the next time company is coming over (unless that company is made up mostly of kids who will go crazy over a colorful dessert), it can be a lot of fun to rediscover some of those retro Jello recipes.
This Topaz Parfait is definitely a vintage recipe*, and it’s a fun one to make. The name comes from the color of the gelatin squares – a brown-amber color that definitely sounds a lot fancier if you describe it as topaz – not from the flavor of the dessert. The gelatin starts with a box of Lemon Jello, which is mixed with coffee, sugar and rum. Lemon and coffee isn’t a combination that you see too often, but it works surprisingly well because lemon brings out some of the citrus notes in the coffee, as long as you’re using good quality coffee. I made some changes to the original recipe, adding fresh lemon zest to make the lemon flavor pop a little bit more and replacing the “dream whip” called for in the original parfaits with lightly sweetened, rum-kissed whipped cream. The whipped cream rounds out of the flavors of the gelatin and turns this into a dessert that is fun to make, fun to eat and surprisingly tasty.
The original recipe suggests that you can replace the alcohol with water and add in 1 teaspoon of rum extract to get a similar flavor without the booze, but in this case the rum really adds a different flavor than rum extract and it is worth making the boozy version. The flavor combination of lemon and coffee is surprisingly good, but it isn’t particularly kid-friendly, so I recommend keeping the alcohol and making this a retro adults-only dessert. The number of servings you will get will vary based on the size of your parfait dishes. The one pictured is very large and you will easily be able to get 4 servings with standard dessert cups. You can also stretch the servings to 8 or 10 small ones, if you want a larger crowd to have a taste of this vintage classic.
1 3-oz box lemon gelatin
8-oz strong coffee, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 cup cold water
1/4 cup rum (pref. dark, but light is fine)
2 cups heaving whipping cream
2 tbsp rum (dark or light)
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
In a medium saucepan, combine gelatin, coffee, sugar and lemon zest. Bring to a simmer, stirring regularly until all the gelatin is dissolved. Remove from heat, then strain out lemon zest and stir in cold water and 1/4 cup rum. Pour into a lightly greased 8×8-inch square baking pan and refrigerate until firm, at least 4-6 hours, or overnight.
When gelatin is firm and you are ready to serve, cut into small squares – 9 x 9 rows.
In a large bowl, whip heavy cream to soft peaks. Add in 2 tbsp rum and confectioners’ sugar and beat to combine.
Layer squares of gelatin in dessert cups, alternating with layers of whipped cream. A standard dessert glass should get you two layers of each, while larger glasses might have room for three layers of each. Small portions can be made with equal parts gelatin and whipped cream.
*I am unsure of the original publication time of this recipe, but I would guess 1970s Jello advertising material or a jello-centric cookbook. Let me know in the comments if you know!