Jack Schramm and Jena Derman are the duo behind the mesmerizing, unabashedly psychedelic booze-filled jelly cakes at Solid Wiggles. And while their backgrounds are quite different — she, a high-end pastry chef and he, a former mixologist at some of NYC’s top bars including Existing Conditions and Booker and Dax — their combination of skills make them a stellar team.
A Jell-O shot revival is well underway, and Schramm and Derman are leading the charge with high-end, jiggly cocktails that would be at home in top cocktail bars and rowdy dinner parties. With her eye for design and his mad scientist-like mixology skills, the resulting cakes are just as pleasing on the eyes as they are on the palate.
Read on to learn how this duo came up with the idea for Solid Wiggles, how they make each edible work of art, and how they ensure each slice (or shot) will taste just as delicious as an expertly made cocktail.
How did you two start working together?
Jack: So Jena and I met in the internship program at Momofuku Milk Bar. I was a food studies student at NYU. Jena was the top dog in the Milk Bar production kitchen. I was working as a barista at the storefront but needed some college credits. So I ended up interning at the commissary, where I worked directly for Jena. And this was in like 2012 — a million years ago.
Jena: Ten years ago…
Jack: …which is just insane. And that was great but I left the bakery [and] barista world to start working in bars. Eight years later, Jena called me and said, "Hey, I'm working on these jelly cakes, but I'm using coconut water as a base and I want to use flavorful liquids, and you know how to use centrifuges to make stuff clear," because that's what I did professionally at basically every bar I worked at.
How did that translate into making Jell-O cakes?
Jack: So Jena said, "I'm working on these new jelly cakes. Can you help me out with flavors?" And I said, "Absolutely." [Jena] had already borrowed a centrifuge from [former owner of Booker and Dax Dave Arnold] at that point. So we met at Jena's place, clarified some cucumber and… I think, lime. We made shots the first time and realized they were incredibly delicious. I was like, "We need to put booze in these ASAP," because I had a pop-up with Dave coming up. While there, we were also doing some Existing Conditions and Booker and Dax cocktails. This was the first lull in the pandemic when it was like, “Can we go outside again? Can we do events in the street?”
Solid Wiggles as a company didn't exist yet. The flier said Booker and Dax, and Jena Derman. We did jello shots and cocktails and that was September 2020. Then we ended up making, like, 1,500 shots for Halloween [and] we figured out the name the next week. We made all of these Jell-O shots [but] we hadn't developed the [production process]. They were all individually molded in soufflé cups.
How have things changed since then?
Jack: It was so, so many late nights — like three or four nights in a basement kitchen figuring it out. But here we are; we're now shipping nationally. And so it's growing, and we're having a great time.
Jack, how did you bring your mixology background into developing each cake?
Jack: I would say that our cakes are equally split between referencing your classic cocktail and focused on new flavors. For instance, our bestseller, “The Cosmos,” is a Cosmo. It's that great [mix of] citrus, cranberry, and vodka, all working together. All of the work that we're doing is sort of rooted in my advanced technique background. The orange juice we're using is clarified and acid-adjusted.
How long does each cake take to make?
Jena: Like most things in the pastry world, it's over a couple of days. Each cake we're making, you can probably make in about six hours, but that's over three days.
Can you walk me through that process?
Jack: The first day of cake production is for the clear base, and we let that set overnight.
Jena: Then we make our milk jelly — they're the opaque colors and flavors that go in. So we inject everything inside [using] syringes that have needles with blades on them. Imagine a bayonet that has like a sword or a dagger on the top of a rifle, it's the same sort of thing. The rifle is the syringe, and the daggers are [shaped] tips. So basically, we cut into the clear base with these blades, and then as we pull out …
Jack: … you fill in that negative space.
Jena: So that's how we get those petals and stuff. Each petal or leaf is one motion by us.
How do you decide what each cake will look like?
Jena: I had a couple years of experience making them before we started, but using this six-inch cake “canvas” has allowed us to be really creative within that restriction.
Jack: Also, in Mexico and in Southeast Asia, there's a long history of jelly art and jelly cakes like this. We've done a lot of studying and research, and there's tutorials online from people who are doing it more as art. The jelly that they're injecting into is a lot firmer. It's easier to inject shapes into something when it's really set hard. You just have so much more margin for error because you can really firmly press something into the correct location.
Why did you feel that the world needed boozy Jell-O cakes?
Jena: I'm an art school kid. I've always been super interested in the intersection of what you can make beautiful, and food. So we found a triad between drinking, eating, and looking and seeing. When we first started in Covid, people would come and buy shots for two or buy a small cake for a gathering, and it really just grew organically. It's a really fun thing that was special but not breaking the bank. It was an opportunity to do something really beautiful and really delicious.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.