Jefferson’s Wine Jelly Recipe
“I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man’s milk, & restorative cordial.”
-Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, Aug. 17, 1811
We have reams of material on the food and cookery of Thomas Jefferson’s day in Virginia–much of it recorded by Jefferson himself. In addition to all of his garden book references of food coming “to table,” Jefferson made endless accounts of household provisions and numerous culinary observations in his Memorandum books. The recipe below is one of 10 he wrote out in his own hand.
Wine jellies were once considered delicate and rare confections. Traditionally made from gelatin extracted from calves’ feet, today this elegant dish can be simplified with ordinary gelatin.
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
4 cups water
2 cups Madeira or dry sherry
3 cups water
3 large egg whites, shells reserved
1 cup sugar
3 envelopes granulated gelatin
1 cup cold water
- Pare the rind from 2 of the lemons in long pieces with a vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife. Juice the lemons and strain into a 2-quart saucepan. Add the rind, spice, and water. Bring it to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the Madeira or sherry and let it cool.
- Beat the egg whites until frothy. Crush the shells and beat them into the whites. Stir this into the wine mixture, return it to medium-low heat, and bring it slowly to a simmer. Meanwhile, wet a large piece of muslin (un-dyed plain cotton fabric), wring it out thoroughly, and line a wire strainer with it. Set this over a bowl that will just hold the strainer near its rim.
- When the egg has solidified and floated to the top, push it to one side and check the clarity of the liquid. If it is clear, skim most of the egg away and ladle the liquid into the trainer. Leave it to slowly drip into the bowl. (This takes some time, so be patient and do not stir or agitate it.) The liquid that drips through the strainer should be perfectly clear.
- Clean the saucepan and return the clarified liquid to it. Bring it back to a simmer over medium heat, stir in the sugar until dissolved, and simmer until the liquid is clear again. Meanwhile, put the gelatin in a large bowl and stir in the cool water. Let soften for 10 minutes and stir in the hot liquid. Continue stirring until the gelatin is completely dissolved and the liquid is somewhat cooled. To speed up the cooling process, set the bowl in an ice bath and stir constantly until it is cold but not yet beginning to jell.
- Pour it into small, stemmed glasses or shallow champagne goblets, cover and chill until set, about 4 hours. Alternatively the jelly may set in a shallow pan, then be broken up with a spoon or knife, and spooned into stemmed glasses.
Serve this classic delicacy with traditional Monticello stemware. These glasses, with their clean forms and exquisite engraving, speak volumes about Jefferson’s taste for fine design. Jefferson purchased a great deal of glassware between 1767 and 1821, but very little survives. The Shop at Monticello’s reproduction stemware is based on a rare original and is made of mouth-blown full lead crystal, cut and etched by hand with a sprig and wheel band. Slight variations among the glasses are hallmarks of handmade glass.
For more historic recipes, check out Dining at Monticello. An inviting view of the renowned hospitality offered at Thomas Jefferson’s table. Ten essays discuss topics such as the groceries and wine imported from Europe, the recent kitchen restoration and the African Americans who participated in Monticello’s rich food culture at every stage. Seventy-five delicious recipes from Jefferson family manuscripts, updated by Editor Damon Lee Fowler, are authentic to the period and accessible to today’s home cook.