Naturally Gelled Desserts to Beat the Heat

(originally published June 2002, in Co-options, the newsletter of Sevanada Natural Foods Cooperative in Atlanta, GA.

Just the idea of turning on the oven this time of year is stultifying. In the South, we have traditionally offered gelatin desserts (and savories like aspic) when entertaining in the summertime. Of course, gelatin is made from cow bones and pig skins, so it’s not suitable for a vegetarian diet. Don’t despair, however.

Here are a few recipes for pretty, cooling, show-stopper desserts. All of these feature natural, vegetarian alternatives to gelatin. None of these recipes require additional sweetening – they’re all sweetened by fruit and fruit juice. The best part about them is that they will not only satisfy your sweet tooth, but will cool you off as well.

Fresh blueberries are the magic ingredient in the first recipe. Their large amounts of natural pectin work as a gelling agent. Once you break the cell walls of the berries by whirling them in the food processor, you release the pectin and it will begin to set up almost immediately. If you leave the filling in the workbowl for more than just a couple of minutes, you will have to scrape it out – it starts setting up just that quick! Remember, however, that this recipe only works with FRESH blueberries. Frozen or canned fruit won’t do. This recipe not only boasts of no added sweetener, it is completely raw. You can make the pie and eat it within a half-hour as well. Instant gratification – Yum!

One of the most commonly used vegetarian gelatin substitutes is called agar-agar, or kanten. It is a type of sea vegetable. It makes a firm gel that is stable at room temperature, unlike regular gelatin, so it can be carried to picnics or left out on buffet tables. It can be found in several forms, including bars, powder, and flakes. The flakes are the most commonly used form. If a recipe calling for agar doesn’t specify which form to use, use the flakes. The bars are messy to work with, and the powder is very concentrated, which makes it trickier to measure. The general conversion is 1 bar = 4 tablespoons flakes = 1 teaspoon powder. Make sure that when you simmer the agar in liquid that you cook it long enough to dissolve it thoroughly. Otherwise you can end up with tough bits in the gel.

One disadvantage to straight agar gels is that they don’t have the sensuous “wiggle” that gelatin does. The “basic” agar gel recipe below will have more of a “snap” when bent. Adding arrowroot or kuzu powder as an additional thickener makes agar gels softer and jiggly. The Kanten recipe here will give you a model recipe that you can adapt to many fruit and fruit juice combinations. These beautiful, jewel-toned desserts look lovely layered in parfait glasses.

Sometimes, you just want to have something on hand in the pantry for a quick dessert. For a jiggly, wiggly, fruity, and natural treat, try Hain’s Super Fruits. They’re available on the baking aisle at most natural foods stores and are quick and easy to make. They don’t get quite as firm as Jell-O, but they are beautiful and delicious, and will satisfy the kid in you.

Blueberry Un-Gel-O Pie

Recipe By: adapted from 30 Days @ Delights of the Garden, by Imar Hutchins
Serves 8
Preparation Time: 0:30

1 cup pecans
2 cups raisins

1 1/2 pints blueberries
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup dates chopped
fresh fruit

Grind pecans and raisins together in a food processor until they form a dough. Press dough into bottom of an 8 or 9 inch pie plate. Put crust in freezer for 10 or 15 minutes, until firm.

Don’t bother washing the workbowl of the food processor. Rinse the blueberries and remove any stems. Process blueberries, raisins, and chopped dates together in the food processor until they form a fairly smooth gelatinous filling.

Remove crust from freezer, and cover bottom with chopped fruit of your choice (banana slices and chopped peaches are especially nice). Pour in filling, then garnish pie with fruit of choice. Kiwi slices, peach slices, and strawberries are very pretty.

Chill the pie for at least one-half hour (one to two hours makes a firmer pie) then slice and serve.

Cook’s notes: Banana slices under the gelled mixture will hold up quite well, but don’t garnish the top of the pie with any fruit that oxidizes rapidly unless you are serving the pie right away. You can wait to garnish pie until just before serving, but you will have to press fruit into the gelled mixture.

Additional bonus: the dough recipe can be used to make raw “cookies.” Make the dough as described, then pat the dough into flat patties the size of silver dollars. Put them in the freezer to firm. After they firm up, store them in a freezer bag or box.
Basic Agar Fruit Gel
Adapted from American Wholefoods Cuisine, by Nikki and David Goldbeck
Serves 4
Preparations time: 10 minutes, plus 20 minutes to set.

2 cups juice of choice
3 tablespoons agar flakes

Blend juice and agar flakes in medium saucepan. Bring juice to boil, then lower to a simmer. Stir and simmer for 5-10 minutes, or until all flakes are dissolved. Pour mixture into an 8” square metal pan. Agar will become firm at room temperature, but will taste better and become firmer when chilled.

Blueberry Kanten (with variations)
Make two or three different types and layer them in parfait glasses for a stress-free, cooling, and delicious dessert that looks as good as it tastes.
Recipe By: Myra Kornfeld, The Voluptuous Vegan
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 15 minutes, plus 30 minutes to chill

1 tablespoon kuzu or arrowroot powder
2 1/2 cups apple cider or juice
2 tablespoons agar flakes
2 cups blueberries

In a small bowl, dissolve the kuzu in 1/2 cup of the apple cider to make a slurry, and set aside.

Put in a medium pot the remaining 2 cups of cider, the agar flakes, and 1 cup of blueberries. Bring the liquid to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the agar flakes are thoroughly dissolved.

Add the slurry to the liquid, stirring constantly, until the mixture just starts bubbling again – no longer. Turn off the heat and stir in the second cup of blueberries. Pour into a shallow pan and refrigerate for about 30 minutes, or until cool and set. Pour into a container and serve.


Use various fruit and fruit juice combinations. Some delicious combinations include fresh apricots and apricot-apple juice (with a 3-inch piece of ginger, cut into 3 pieces, simmered with juice, then removed), cherries (pitted and quartered) with cherry-apple juice and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract, and diced mango with mango or mango-blend juice.

Frozen fruit may be used in this recipe, although fresh fruit is preferred.

Gorgeous-to-Behold, No-Bake, Quick-and-Easy Fruit Tart
This pie makes a wonderful potluck or buffet offering. It’s so pretty it serves as a table decoration.
Recipe By: Lorna Sass, The Complete Vegetarian Kitchen
Serves 6
Preparation Time: 1 hr, 30 minutes

1/4 teaspoon canola oil
3/4 cup granola w/o dried fruit
1 cup apple juice or pear juice
1 1/2 tablespoons agar flakes
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
Fruit Filling
2 peaches cut in 1/4″ slices
2 kiwi fruit peeled, 1/4″ slices
8 strawberries halved
1 cup blueberries

1. Brush the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate lightly with the oil.

2. Using on-off pulses, buzz the granola in a food processor to break up any large lumps and create a fairly coarse flour. Spread the granola evenly on the bottom of the pie plate. Set aside.

3. To prepare the glaze: In a small saucepan, begin to heat the juice. Stir in the agar flakes and simmer until they have dissolved, 5 minutes or so. Transfer to a liquid measuring cup and stir in the lemon juice and vanilla. Set aside to cool.

4. Arrange a circle of peach slices around the outer rim of the pie plate, so that about 1/3 of the slice covers the rim of the plate and the bottom 2/3 tilts down into the pie plate. Cover the remaining crust with a layer of sliced peaches. Arrange the kiwi slices on top of some of the peaches, partially overlapping each other in a concentric circle. Arrange the strawberry halves in a circle inside the kiwis. Mound blueberries in the center and dot them here and there between the kiwis and peaches (the goal is to fill the pie shell decoratively to the brim with fruit).

5. Once the glaze has cooled to room temperature or so, pour it evenly over the fruit. The glaze should be thin enough to seep between the fruit. If it has thickened too much, return it to the pan and heat it slightly while stirring.

6. Allow the glaze to set at room temperature for about an hour. Chill the pie if it is not needed within the next 2 or 3 hours, but for best flavor, serve it at room temperature.

The crust will become soft, but you can still slice and serve it in the usual way.

Variations: Instead of peaches, use plums, apricots, or nectarines. Pitted cherries or grapes make a nice addition or substitute for the blueberries. For the glaze, match the flavor to the fruit. For example, use a peach glaze on a peach pie, or white grape juice on a plum pie.