Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Not a trifling matter.

Cheater, cheater, cheater!

Trifle is the most divisive of desserts. Well, that and tiramisu - everyone loves it, I hate it with a seething hatred. Tiramisu is the Rachael Ray of the dessert world.

Anyway. Ask anyone from the UK or Commonwealth countries about their favorite trifle, and each response will be completely, and sometimes horribly, different. Everyone is utterly convinced that their way is the "right" way, the way their mum or Nan or Aunt Matilda used to make it. As many of these "right" ways include such things as canned fruit cocktail, canned peaches, bananas, pineapple, candied cherries, ratafia biscuits (whatever the hell they are) and most often a layer of "jelly" (read: Jello), I feel I must reject them utterly.

You see, rampant Anglophile that I am, I'm a purist when it comes to trifle. By purist I mean: "I like to make it the way I imagine they did in Victorian times in England," which to me means a lowest-common-denominator trifle: cake, spirits, raspberry jam, custard, fresh berries, whipped cream. That's it. Not a speck of Jello in sight. Sometimes I flick a few sliced toasted almonds on the top, but nothing else. I also draw the line at candied violets or candied angelica (whatever that is - possibly a root) as decoration - I may be enamored of Masterpiece Theater, but I stop short of extreme re-enactments.

All of this is to say I've made dozens and dozens of trifles in my day, even aberrant ones like an all chocolate trifle (bleah!) and the Italian zuppa di Inglese. I've made from-scratch custard, creme anglaise, pastry cream and mousse for these trifles. I've made pan di spagna and genoise and butter cakes for them until my fingers bled (well, not really). But I'll let you in on a secret: the best trifle I ever made was a last-minute jerry-rigged one containing leftover pound cake, tricked-up Bird's custard and Knott's seedless raspberry jam. I mean it. It was the best, most unctous, most trifle-y thing I've ever tasted. I couldn't stop eating it, and wanted to prevent my guests from finishing it so I'd have some all to myself later (leftover trifle is a ghastly, wonderful mush).

So My Ultimate Trifle Recipe isn't one really -- it's more of a general bunch of directions, because it will depend on how much of this stuff you have on hand. It can grow exponentially to feed however many people you want to feed, too.

You will need:

Pound cake - leftover homemade is best, but you may also use the kind you get from a bakery, or Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. Please for the love of God DO NOT use thawed Sara Lee - it is like a horrible sweet sponge. OK, I lied -- use it if you have to. Pfttt.

Brandy and/or sherry (optional, but I use both)

Raspberry jam (seedless or not, you make the choice)

Custard made from a Bird's Custard mix (which is available now in all good supermarkets), only use half-and-half (single cream) instead of milk and add a tablespoon of vanilla extract.

Fresh raspberries, or blackberries or blueberries or redcurrants , or all of them. Use what's cheapest, but don't use strawberries because they are vile in trifle. They weep.

1 or 2 pints heavy cream, stiffly whipped with a tablespoon of powdered sugar and vanilla if you want. Please do not use the stuff from a can. It won't hold up.

Optional garnishes: sliced toasted almonds, more berries, arcane candied flowers or roots, etc. Some people use colored jimmies/sprinkles/hundreds-and-thousands, but I think this is naff. Use them if you must, though.

Method (if you can call it that):

First, make the Bird's Custard according to the package directions, but use half-and-half instead of milk and add a tablespoon of vanilla extract. Make a lot. I never make less than one quart. Don't let the "on the hob" direction throw you -- this is just the quaint British way of saying "on the stove burner." Cover finished custard and set aside - you can use warm custard to make this trifle.

Then, find a large glass bowl. I use a footed straight-sided trifle bowl, but then again I have about 9 because, Crazed Anglophile. You can get them cheaply at Target or K-Mart (Martha Stewart?). Anyway, place a single layer of sliced pound cake in the bottom of the bowl. Sprinkle with as much brandy or sherry as you see fit (of course, you can leave this part out, or you could use orange juice as a substitute). Spread raspberry jam on cake in a thin layer. Pour on enough of the custard to cover the cake in a thinnish layer. Scatter on some berries. Repeat. I usually make at least three layers -- just make sure you end up with custard/berries on top. Another secret: even if you mess up the order it will still taste good. This is a true no-brainer recipe.

Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time.

When ready to serve, whip heavy cream and sugar in a Kitchenaid mixer or with a hand mixer or hand blender until stiff peaks form. Remove trifle from refrigerator, remove plastic wrap, and spoon whipped cream over top in decorative mounds. Sprinkle with garnish of choice. Serve immediately.

Really, trifle (and especially this one) is like a once-a-year dessert blanket, immersing you in creamy fruity boozy goodness. I'm sorry I turned into Nigella Lawson there for a second, but it's true.

Happy holidays.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

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