These Mexican old-school jelly desserts are popular again! Here’s where to find them in the Bay Area.
Buoyed by a national resurgence in Jell-O, Bay Area artists are turning to their heritage for inspiration and giving their childhood desserts a slick, new look.
“Jell-O is so popular these days because people have found a way to be creative with it, to play with flavors and designs, to turn it into art,” Velázquez said.
New creators like Sweet Jelly Desserts and Ruby Desserts are making intricate dulce de leche and banana cakes shaped like a dozen ice cream cones and grand cinnamon-dusted tres leches desserts filled with strawberries. Meanwhile,
Bay Area mainstay Sweets Collection from La Cocina alum Rosa Rodriguez is attracting a host of new customers for rose-adorned cakes and jellified Frida Kahlo tributes. Reservations for these cakes have blossomed during the pandemic, and on social media the colorful desserts are accumulating “likes” and accolades.
Latino Jell-O desserts, primarily originating in Mexico, have a long history in the Bay Area: They have been a household staple in the Mexican immigrant community, and there’s a loyal following for home cooks selling such desserts on Facebook, many of the cake creators told The Chronicle. What sets the current moment apart is a combination of factors: A savvy understanding of social media trends, such as the cakes gaining an online following this year; the updated Instagram-ready looks of these cakes; and the use of natural ingredients like fruit paste and milk (as opposed to traditional food coloring) and in some cases agar agar — to cater to the vegan customer base — instead of gelatin. What’s more, the creations today are a lot more intricate, featuring architectural shapes, artful swirls and, in many cases, references to design and pop culture trends such as the everlasting obsession with unicorns or the terrazzo pattern popular in design magazines.
Take, for instance, the tres leches mosaico, a chic dessert created by artist Yenci Orellana that’s popular among her customers. The layered dome-like cake features iridescent jellied cubes set within pastel-hued gelatin. The tres leches gelatin has a denser, more opaque appearance than the typical translucent gelatin due to the addition of milk. Orellana shops for the molds at an online Mexican store and looks at Mexican recipe Facebook groups for inspiration. She has eight different molds and numerous takes on the jellied cake on her menu.
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The San Lorenzo artist opened her business Sweet Jelly Desserts in 2019 to make more money to support her daughter, who was 6 months old at the time. Orellana was born in El Salvador, but her love for Jell-O cake came from spending time with her Mexican American friends, she says. “They’re perfect with everything, for every type of event — not too sweet, light and not overly expensive,” Orellana said of the cakes. Her jellied cakes start at $35; Rodriguez’s Sweets Collection cakes start at $40.
Financial stability was also the reason Oakland artist Rubi Lupian of Rubi’s Desserts turned to making jellied cakes. Her intricate designs rival Orellana’s, even though she doesn’t fulfill as many orders a month. Lupian had quit her job last summer following health complications and found making gelatin desserts to be more rewarding. She started by re-creating desserts from her childhood like the tres leches cake, but soon she started experimenting, adding whole or cut fruit like clementines and grapes or making creations inspired by horchata and the Mexican chocolate bar Carlos V.
While Lupian and Orellana are relatively new to the scene, intricate creations that reflect Mexican culture have long been a focus of Rodriguez, who started her business Sweets Collection from La Cocina’s kitchen incubator program in 2011. Rodriguez has been ahead of the curve, creating portraits of Frida Kahlo in Jell-O or creating patterns and shapes like roses and infusing the cakes with flavors like guava, caramel and Rompope, a type of Mexican eggnog. Rodriguez’s desserts have been popular for years within the Mexican immigrant community, but the recent spotlight on jellied desserts has widened her fan base and orders have skyrocketed, Rodriguez said.
For many makers, this renewed interest in Mexican Jell-O desserts and the new wave of creativity associated with it is heartening. Some, like Angelina Velázquez from San Jose, want even more people to get involved and are offering classes to teach techniques. Velázquez opened San Jose’s Jello Fantasy in 2006 as an at-home club dedicated to jellified desserts. It was a hit and two years ago she opened a store and workshop space. Over the past year, she’s seen a major uptick of customers signing up for classes where she teaches things like making Jell-O flowers or how to paint on Jell-O.