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More Than Just Jell-O: How Making 'Broken Window' Connected Me To My Grandmother

Plastic molders used by my Lola to make the Filipino dessert "Broken Window."

When a hug and kiss from grandma is too far away, sometimes a platter of Jell-O will do the trick. WLRN multimedia producer Alyssa Ramos shares a family recipe — and family tradition — with us.

This post has been updated.

Pastel green and yellow plastic bundt pans crowded the kitchen counters in my grandmother's house in the Philippines.

I knew it was a special occasion when the plastic molders were lined up like soldiers, ready for duty.

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We were making cathedral window, or as my family likes to call it, "broken window."

It's a Filipino gelatin dessert in which colorful cubes of Jell-O are suspended in another gelatin.

The recipe calls for different flavors — cherry, lemon, lime, strawberry. Just imagine a cake made completely out of Jell-O.

If made correctly, the different colors resemble the stained-glass windows you see in a church.

Broken window is not an everyday dish. It's typically reserved for special occasions.

My mom was still dressing me up in Gap clothing when I first learned about broken window. I was eight years old, and it was my first time visiting the Philippines.

The purpose of the trip was two-pronged: We were celebrating Christmas and my great-grandmother's 90th birthday.

There was no doubt that broken window would make it to the table.

As a kid I was much too picky to give broken window a chance, but I never forgot about it. So I wanted to make it myself.

Learning From The Broken Window Master

The first step to recreating any family recipe begins with the sage advice of a relative. I turned to my grandma, my mom's mom who lives in Florida, to give me the instructions. My grandma told me that she actually learned how to make the dish from the true master of the broken window: my other grandmother.

My dad's mom, I call her my Lola Ene, still lives in the Philippines. When she learned how to make broken window, it became one of her signature dishes.

"It's so special because not too many can do it good like my mom," my dad, Pompey Ramos said. "She perfected it because, you know, if you cannot do it well, it will come out watery, mushy, because the finished product should be firm. It's like you're slicing a cake."

My Lola says the recipe is simple — it just takes a lot of time — but that's not what I found out when I tried to make it.

First step: Cook no more than five different flavors of Jell-O according to their packets — each in their own dish.

Once the gelatin is firm enough, cut them into cubes and place them in a bundt-shaped molder — a plastic one is preferred.

Make unflavored Knox gelatin, also according to the box's directions. Then, incorporate Carnation condensed milk and Nestlé table cream into the gelatin mixture. My grandmothers on both sides of my family swear by these brands.

The specific brand ingredients for broken window are hard to come by in the Philippines. My family often sends them boxes of these ingredients in time for the holiday season, making the dish even more special.

It sounds easy enough — until you cut some corners and eyeball the measurements.

My poor attempt at recreating the Filipino gelatin dessert, Broken Window or Cathedral Window.

Pro tip: Make sure you have the correct measuring tools and follow the instructions on the box. Otherwise, your gelatin could stick to the bottom of your pot and start to burn like mine did. I also bungled the ratio of water to gelatin, so not only was the flavor diluted, it never set properly.

Let's say you haven't burned your gelatin. At this point in the process, you're ready to pour the creamy mixture into the mold so that the cubes are fully submerged.

Stick it in the fridge and once it sets, out pops a wreath of colorful gelatin.

My creation was barely holding itself together with Jell-O oozing out like a landslide. According to my dad, it shouldn't taste overwhelmingly sweet. It should be light. Mine tasted oddly of flan.

It's More Than Jell-O

I know what you must be thinking: It's just Jell-O. That's what I thought, too.

My parents have been living in the states for decades now. They raised me in the suburbs of Central Florida. As a result, they left some of our family traditions behind in the Philippines.

My Lola Ene has only seen me and my brother a handful of times, the Pacific Ocean and external circumstances keeping us apart. My Lola is in her eighties now. She's savvy in almost everything except technology, so it's hard for us to connect.

Maybe that's why I wanted to recreate broken window and why it took up space in my memories — it reminded me of my Lola.

"I think she feels satisfied every time she makes it because people like to eat it. if she's not around, you're gonna sure miss it," my dad said.

If there's anything I have learned from this experience, it's that making broken window is really about reviving family traditions and to connect with my grandmother, albeit from a distance.

I might never make it like my Lola does — but I'm going to try again.

This time, the right way: With my family on Christmas.

UPDATE: Alyssa did in fact successfully make broken window over the holiday and she shared the results on Twitter:

Have a recipe you want to share with us? Head here to let us know and we may add it to our community cookbook.

Alyssa Ramos is a multimedia producer for WLRN’s Morning Edition.