Initially, vaccine distribution in New York City made a bacchanalian season seem possible — for a brief while some restaurants even felt like parties — until the Delta variant cooled things down again. Nevertheless, New Yorkers found ways to celebrate on their own terms, even if slightly more muted than what had been initially pitched. Over the past year, Solid Wiggles — a boozy jelly cake company — has been a beacon of hope, ushering in a fun new way to celebrate in these bizarre times.
“Whether you’re someone eating a whole cake slowly alone throughout the week or going to bring it to a picnic, I think they’re kind of perfect,” says Solid Wiggles co-founder Jena Derman. “A lot of our success has been from small gatherings. It’s a great gift option especially when you can’t get together in a bigger group.”
These days, Solid Wiggles sells its wiggly, wobbling jelly cakes out of its permanent home: Kit, the incubator pop-up food space and cafe on Prospect Heights’ Washington Avenue. At Kit, customers can purchase whole cakes or by the slice, preorder full cakes for pick-up, as well as request custom orders. Likewise, Solid Wiggles now delivers its cakes nationwide via Goldbelly and has shipped as far as Hawaii. Some cakes are available in non-alcoholic versions as well.
Derman first started playing around with making jelly cakes — sans alcohol, initially — back in 2018. A trained pastry chef, she designed a jelly dessert for a friend’s surprise party and from there began experimenting more with techniques for the gelatin treats.
“I was having an issue with creating more complex flavors in the base of the cakes — since they need to be super clear I was limited with how to flavor them,” says Derman. “So much of why the cakes are beautiful is from the clarity of the base jelly itself; even if you add lemon juice, they’d get cloudy and you would lose the visual definition of the jelly flowers.”
Jack Schramm, a colleague of Derman’s at Milk Bar, was immersed in the experimental cocktail world. He worked for Dave Arnold at the bar Booker and Dax and later at Existing Conditions. Using a centrifuge tool — the Spinzall — Arnold had invented for his bars to create remarkably transparent cocktails, Schramm showed Derman how to clarify her juice mixes for the jelly cakes. In September 2020, Arnold and Schramm were hosting a sidewalk pop-up at Wildair for Existing Conditions’ closing; it’s where Derman and Schramm collaborated for the first time on made-from-scratch, artisanal jelly shots.
With that, Solid Wiggles was born.
People lovingly refer to Derman and Schramm’s Solid Wiggles with variations on “not your freshman year Jell-O shots.” But they are indeed much more than debaucherous party fuel for a more “adult” palate. It’s also more of a luxury experience with most whole cakes on its website currently priced at $85.
“You can go to Capri Social Club in Greenpoint and get one of their incredible Jell-O shots,” says Schramm. “I really respect it, but what we’re doing is totally different and our own recipes.”
At 5 percent alcohol for an entire cake — the legal cap when shipping edible goods — Solid Wiggles won’t get anyone wasted. And that’s not the point anyway.
“We try to operate a space where we’re not solely married to takes on classic cocktails, but also looking at anything like pastry or food for inspiration, too,” says Schramm. Rather than selecting a spirit first, they work to find their ideal flavor profile and then add a spirit “to bump up” the mixture.
There’s a long history of floral jelly cakes in Mexico (among other countries) — though seldom seen with alcohol. Making the jelly cakes from the inside out, where tips go onto the syringe, and an opaque jelly is injected in — each petal its own movement — works within the canon of what has existed. But cakes such as Solid Wiggles’ mesmerizing, space age-y Boozy Cosmos version — which, yes, is a play on the cocktail with orange juice and vodka jelly, a sweet milk jelly galaxy, and a cranberry lemon jelly base — uses techniques that are unique from what’s been seen with jelly cakes of the past.
Solid Wiggles uses blades and even tools used for trimming pottery to create its cocktail cakes. Custom, food-safe silicone molds are also in the works, so that the team has more design flexibility.
Solid Wiggles uses gelatin — meaning the cakes are not vegan — but they’re open and interested in exploring other recipes in the future.
It’s clear the interest around jelly cakes is surging and Solid Wiggles is in good company.
“But jelly isn’t just a medium; it’s a state of mind. It engulfs an object and solidifies, making anything set inside visible yet distant, like insects trapped in amber,” writes Bettina Makalintal for Munchies of the jelly art trend.
Whether it’s nostalgia or what plays well on Instagram, Nunchi, a jelly cake company in Los Angeles, collaborated with Chifa, one of the city’s hot new openings, on its signature jelly corn dessert.
“The flavors come relatively easy to us. It’s harder to predict what people are going to be into. We want to be ready and smart about how we’re producing and when,” says Derman. For Halloween, the team is selling a boozy eyeball cake. A Thanksgiving version is to follow come November (available through Christmas) with rum-casked scotch and brown sugar, and a take on a French 75 — with gin, champagne, absinthe, lemon, and lots of gold glitter — will be on deck for New Year’s.
“We get a lot of feedback that the jelly is too pretty to eat... I would push everyone to try it,” says Derman. “What we’ve been able to do with flavor — though you can’t necessarily see it because it’s been clarified — is really special and worth the experience of tasting.”