My family's traditional dessert for Christmas dinner, a show-stopping English trifle. The "recipe" is ever-so-adaptable but here I share our essentials, a good cake (we use panettone), homemade custard, lots of fruit (mostly canned, it's winter!), pillows of whipped cream – and one ingredient I fought against for years but finally adopted as my own, because, well, aren't our mothers always right?
To make my dog go instantly still, I rub her shin bone. To make grown men (and women and children) go weak in the knees and instantly silent, I bring out the trifle bowl filled with a messy concoction of cake, custard, fruit and whipped cream.
And Jello. Yes, that Jello. My mother insisted that Jello inserted the right coldness and wetness into trifle. A foodie from a young age, I rolled my eyes in protest. One year, I made my own gelatin with Knox powder and fruit juice. Mom rolled her eyes in protest.
The year Mom died, in tribute I made our Christmas trifle with Jello. Ha! She was right about Jello! (And oh-so-many other things too. Are you listening up there, Mom?) So now I use Jello in trifle because, well, it just tastes better.
This recipe has become the family standard over perhaps twenty years, I’ve been taking close notes since 2002 and there is much opportunity for adaptation. It takes a few steps but comes together more quickly than you might imagine for something so impressive.
Here, it’s our traditional dessert for Christmas dinner but it’s a fabulous dessert for any special occasion.
CONCEPT RECIPE Trifle is what I call a ‘concept’ recipe. You start with some basics and then adapt to the season, what’s on hand, what everyone likes, what sounds interesting. In my family, the basics are custard, Jello, some kind of cake, wet and soft fruit and pillows of whipped cream. Here’s what we use, our ‘perfect’ Christmas trifle, rarely exactly the same, always delicious, ever indulgent.
CUSTARD I like to use Grand Marnier or sherry to flavor both the custard and the whipped cream but vanilla is lovely too. The custard needs a day to set up properly since it is the primary ‘binder’ in the trifle. We’ve experimented with making the custard with half & half, it’s just too rich.
GELATIN We’ve tried several gelatins but like strawberry the best for its cheerful red color and the most natural flavor. If there were a cranberry gelatin (and wait, in 2001 there is a cranberry gelatin!), that would be great. Sugar-free gelatin doesn’t set up properly for trifle.
CAKE We’re lucky! In recent years, our Christmas stocking always includes a box of the traditional Italian cake called panettone that adds structure and soft dried fruit to trifle. (Thank you, Ms. Olga, for introducing us to panettone!) It’s quite easy to find before Christmas, even quite inexpensively in unlikely places such as drugstores and TJ Maxx. I slice off the dark outer edges, then cut thin rounds that fit perfectly into the trifle bowl. Before discovering panettone, I made a light pound cake, even a sponge cake. Once or twice, we used soft lady fingers but they are hard to find in St. Louis and too sweet for my taste. My mother used to buy a commercial jelly roll cake with a red filling, sliced thin: very pretty but also very very sweet. Choose a somewhat sturdy cake or slightly sweet bread, one that holds its shape when cut.
FRUIT You want a fairly high proportion of fruit, so don’t skimp here. Think ‘soft and wet’. To our taste, the peaches and mandarin oranges are perfect for our Christmas Trifle, so are sour cherries if you can find them. Canned pears sound good but are too soft. I’ve also used a half cup or more of Cranberry Apple Compote leftover from Christmas breakfast, it would be worth making a batch, just for trifle, especially since it provides a slight ‘sour’ that contrasts with the creaminess of the custard and whipped cream.
ASSEMBLY Do choose a clear glass bowl so that the fabulous presentation shows through. Amazon carries trifle bowls but once you keep an eye out, they're pretty easy to spy. Depending on your own bowl’s size and height, you may need to double the recipe. You do want at least two layers of the cake, custard, fruit and whipped cream plus the last layer of topping. For my twelve-cup trifle bowl (pictured), I make double batches of custard, gelatin and whipped cream; about two-thirds get used. Some year I'll adapt the recipes to be just enough, probably the year I stop using Jello. You know, probably never.
TOPPING Do reserve some fruit for decorating the top. Silver dragees work beautifully too.
Time to table: 24 hours
Serves 12 - 16
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 large eggs
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon liqueur (see TIPS) or vanilla
(make custard 1-2 days before; if doubling the recipe, make two batches not a double batch)
In a saucepan, ‘scald’ the milk by bringing it almost to a boil on medium heat without allowing it to boil, stirring often.Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar till well combined. A tablespoon at a time, whisk about half the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking well each time before adding another. Pour the egg-milk mixture back into the saucepan. Cook on medium low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly. To tell when the custard is fully cooked, dip a metal spoon in the hot mixture, draw a finger along it; if the custard is done, the line will stay clean. Let cool, transfer to a covered dish and refrigerate until ready to assemble. If the custard is a little grainy, just run it through a strainer.
- 1 3-ounce box strawberry gelatin (preferably Jello, not sugar-free, see TIPS)
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 cups ice cubes
(make just before assembling)
This method forms a slightly soupy gelatin that’s the perfect consistency for trifle. Pour the gelatin powder into a medium bowl, stir the boiling water in and stir until the powder is completely dissolved. Add ice cubes and stir until the ice cubes stop melting, remove any leftover ice.
- 1 pint whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon liqueur or vanilla
(whip just before assembling)
Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Slowly add the sugar, continue whipping until stiff peaks form. Whip in the liqueur. Place about 1/3 of the whipped cream in a ziplock bag with a corner snipped, save this for decorating the top.
- 1/2 - 1 pound Italian panettone or another sturdy cake or bread, preferably studded with fruit (see TIPS)
- 8 ounces canned peach chunks, drained well
- 8 ounces canned mandarin oranges, drained well
- 8 ounces sour cherries, drained well
- Reserved fruit for topping
- Pomegranate seeds & silver dragees, optional
(assemble 3 – 6 hours before serving)
BOTTOM LAYERS Place a 1/3 inch thick slice of panettone on the bottom of a glass bowl, then 1/3 inch thick slices (cut into half moons) along the sides. Spoon in gelatin (especially along the sides), then fruit, custard and whipping cream, not really in layers but dabbing all over. Repeat at least once, if there's room, do another layer or two.
TOP LAYER Place a last layer of cake on top. Decorate with dollops of whipped cream, a last pool of custard and fruit.
CHILL TO SET Chill trifle for 3 – 6 hours before serving.
WHAT TO MAKE WITH LEFTOVER CAKE? WHAT TO DO WITH A CAKE THAT FALLS or BREAKS? MAKE TRIFLE!
Trifle is the ultimate of dessert concept recipes! Here are versions I’ve made.
AUTUMN TRIFLE Once I made a spur-of-the-moment autumn trifle – Plan B when Plan A’s apple spice cake fell apart when taking it out of the Bundt pan. Instead of canned fruit, I made a sort of applesauce with chopped apples sautéed in a tablespoon of butter and a splash of apple cider, then added 1/4 cup brown sugar, some currants and the zest and juice of half a lemon. I also made an apple cider cream sauce, cooking 4 cups apple cider and a sprinkle of nutmeg down to 2 cups, then stirred in a cup of cream. It was like an apple-caramel sauce, delicious and looked pretty drizzled over top. An apricot Jello helped hold the whole mess together. Very pretty, delicious too!
CHOCOLATE CHERRY TRIFLE For a Boxing Day feast, I used a moist, sturdy chocolate cake (using Ina Garten’s Chocolate Cake, baked in a 9x9 three days ahead of time and refrigerated, there was just enough for a ) with cherry jello and frozen/thawed sweet cherries (the canned sour cherries were way too bland) and peaches and used Amaretto in the custard and whipped cream. I also drizzled homemade chocolate sauce into the layers and onto the top. EXCELLENT! Since the cake didn’t have any fruit, though, I wish I’d used more fruit in the layers and the dark color isn’t as pretty as a lighter colored cake. I made only a single batch of custard and whipped cream but still, it filled my trifle bowl and eight of us ate only half the trifle so from now on, I’m going to say my trifle recipe serves sixteen.
Trifle Is A Show-Stopping Dessert
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