Spend any time around a Southern potluck, and you’ll probably run into a “salad” that doesn’t look much like a salad. These retro-inspired recipes are more congealed than crisp, with everything from pineapple and maraschino cherries to marshmallows and nuts suspended in vibrantly colored gelatin.
When you make one of these recipes, you’ll likely face someone who’s never encountered such an unapologetically jiggly dish that dares to call itself a salad. They may throw a side eye your way when you try to serve the dish, with its canned mandarin oranges and cream cheese nestled against a layer or two of translucent jello.
But for those brave enough to take a bite (and brave enough to admit they loved it), these vintage recipes prove that our grandmothers were onto something. And if there’s one gelatin salad to rule them all — it’s Strawberry Pretzel Salad.
It’s been said that Strawberry Pretzel Salad began its reign as the ultimate jello salad back in 1963 when the Joys of Jell-O cookbook was published. It was the heyday of gelatin, and while many (for better or worse) fell by the wayside of history, the Strawberry Pretzel Salad became ubiquitous. Its sweet, creamy texture and appealing layers of red and white made it perennially popular.
The story goes that many people serve Strawberry Pretzel Salad along with their Thanksgiving side dishes, but, for me, that sweet strawberry topping screams summer. Frozen strawberries do the trick, so you’re technically not inhibited by season, but nothing beats a little extra garnish of juicy, in-season strawberries. It’s the dish you want on your Memorial Day picnic table or sitting pretty on the dessert table at your Fourth of July cookout.
This retro recipe isn’t an exact science, and I altered it in a few spots from those I found online (and there are many!). For my updated version, I ran the pretzels through a food processor until they were finely crushed to create a crush, and I found that two cups weren’t nearly enough for this. Instead, I upped the pretzels to three cups and increased the butter slightly. The recipes varied wildly in how many frozen strawberries they called for, but I found that one 16-ounce package was perfect. (And, if in season, a topping of macerated fresh berries will take it right over the top!)
This classic Southern recipe* is so incredibly easy, and while you have to allow lots of time for setting, the actual elements of the dish come together quickly. As long as you get an early start, it’s a simple make-ahead dish for your next warm-weather potluck!
*Disclaimer: The Midwest also claims the jello salad, so we won’t argue for exclusive rights.
Strawberry Pretzel Salad Updated
For the crust:
- 3 cups pretzels crushed
- ¾ cup unsalted butter + two tablespoons melted
- 3 tbsp granulated sugar
For the filling:
- 8 oz. cream cheese
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 8-oz. container of Cool Whip whipped topping
For the topping:
- 2 cups boiling water
- 2 packages Jell-O® strawberry-flavored gelatin Four-serving size
- 16 oz. frozen strawberries
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Mix the pretzels, butter, and sugar until well combined. Press into the bottom of an 8-by-12-inch Pyrex baking dish. Pop in the oven to bake for 8-10 minutes. Let cool.
- In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese, Cool Whip, and sugar on medium speed until smooth. Evenly spread it over the crust (this is why it’s critical that the crust is cool!).
- Bring two cups of water to a boil. Dissolve the strawberry-flavored gelatin in the water, remove from heat, then add the still-frozen strawberries. Carefully pour into a bowl and let it begin to set in the refrigerator, but do not let it set to firm yet.
- Spoon the strawberry topping over the cream cheese filling, then let sit in the refrigerator until firm, at least two hours. Serve cold with a dollop of Cool Whip on top. Enjoy!
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