Saturday, July 01, 2006

No Small Trifle

This past weekend, it turns out, was the perfect trifle weekend. All the necessary fruits came ripe together. It was, in fact, a bit goblin markety. When I teach that poem I always point out that it is sinister that all those different fruits of many lands are magically "All ripe together," but my Perfect Trifle Weekend may have proved me wrong. Either that, or trifle is simply a deliciously sinister business.

I had peaches from Georgia, and organic cherries, strawberries and raspberries from right here in Eastern Pennsylvania. The lovely ladies at the Reading Terminal Market Fair Foods farm stand gallantly offered me the cheaper, non-organic raspberries, but less gallantly invited me to taste them both first -- there was no way I was going to walk away from those organic raspberries. Pricier they may have been, but they were a deeper, more velvet red than the others, and the bigger, punchier flavour did a polka on my tongue.

I staggered out of there carrying a huge cardboard box of fruits, and a full gallon of raw Jersey cream because I had TWO trifles to make.

I have big ambitions for perfecting the craft of the trifle. This is probably the 5th year in my trifle-making career, but the truth is that you only get to make a couple of trifles each year, because it's so seasonal. This time round I had a plan: to scent the custard with rose geranium leaves that we'd been growing in our small city garden. I made the custard using the delicious raw Jersey cream, into which I had steeped a shredded handful of the rose geranium leaves, and some local eggs with deep saffron-coloured yolks. It was a delicious custard. B and I kept testing it, with soup spoons. Rapturous testing session!

I'd also made some lady-fingers. A friend from my days in Vermont had visited St John, the restaurant of nose-to-tail dining fame in London. She'd returned with a delightful present for me: Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating. He includes a recipe for cherry trifle, which I didn't use that closely, but I did take his point that there is no point in laboriously piping out lady-fingers which are going to be buried in a trifle. So I made the lady-fingers by spreading the batter out on cookie sheets and baking them into folios which I then sliced into fingers once they'd cooled. He also suggested that if one wanted to be extravagant, one could use Marsala instead of sherry. Ever eager to be extravagant in the kitchen, I dug out a musty bottle of Marsala from the side-board, along with the bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream and set up a quick taste test. The sherry won: the Marsala was thin and edgy tasting. I wasn't inclined to doubt Mr Nose to Tail, but it occurred to me that I had probably bought the Marsala back when my salary was a bit on the thin side too. A check of the label confirmed this: something that calls itself "American Marsala Wine" from New York State is most likely not a fair contestant. So this particular detail of trifle construction remains open to investigation: next year I will try some good Marsala.

Having laid down and sogged my lady-fingers with 3 times the amount of booze anyone with any sense recommends, I put them aside and started halving cherries and strawberries, and skinning and slicing up the peaches. The peaches were so outrageously, Lolita-ly sexy, I had to take a photo. Look at the slick blush on it!

Once I had my fruits prepared and in separate bowls to prevent pre-trifle mingling, I set about layering. First went the cherries, then the strawberries. I privileged the edges of the bowl, so that the lusciousness of the different fruits catered to the trifle voyeur, and scattered them more lightly in the middle. Next came the raspberries, whose soft, matte and whiskery flesh contrasts so perfectly with the easy sleekness of cut peaches. The peaches topped it all off and their big, flat slices formed my custard-catching platform. I am very fussy, perhaps even neurotic, about the mobility of my trifle custard. I want it to be stiff enough to drip just a little, but not entirely. I want to see the fruits from the outside, naked and not peering through a downpour of thin custard. But there are definite logistical problems with this: a classic custard is pretty thin, no matter how long you stand and stir it, fretting over the immanent splitting you are risking. A more pedestrian, Delia Smithly custard recipe would urge you to use cornflour to prevent the curdling -- but even if you are brave of heart and scoff at such safe-players, the truth is that cornflour a stiffer custard makes. What to do? Since the trifles of my English youth were made with packet jelly and packet custard, and the trifle is after all a retro delight, I decided that cornflour has a role to play in my trifles. It alludes to the Birds Eye custard powder of yore, and also gives me that artful, seized drip I seek.

So on went the custard. Then the crushed Amaretti biscuits. I love buying the huge red bags of those, wrapped in their pretty papers. Then I whipped up more of that excellent cream, adding a few slurps of Courvoisier just to perk it up. Since I tend to the prissy, I have always dallied with the idea of piping the cream, but my beloved weighed in on the topic, pointing out that trifle is a trollopy, slumpy creature, who would be offended to be topped with the equivalent of a pill-box hat. She is right. So the cream goes on in big spoonfuls, blowsy and unconstrained.

Much fun was had with the two trifles. The rose-geranium custard was utterly lost in the mix: such a delicate scent couldn't stand up to the trumpeting flavours of the Amaretti and the sherry. So I will return to vanilla-bean custards for future trifles and save rose geranium custard-making for when I want ice-cream. Subtlety may have no place in the trifle bowl, but once the helpings and second-helpings of trifle are consumed, we always follow them with a performance of extreme delicacy: we roll the saved Amaretti papers into tubes, turn out the lights and set fire to their top edge. They dissolve into a column of lacy blue and green flames and finally, just when you think it's through, they lift gently and certainly into the air like a wisp of singed nothingness. So magical is it, your most stolid of guests may cry out with the delight of a small child.

Makes one large trifle. Large = a bowl that is about 10" in diameter, and about 5" high.


2/3 cup / 2.5oz / 70g sifted cake flour
3 large eggs, separated, room temp
1/2 cup / 3.5oz / 100g plus 1 tblsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch salt

Makes enough for 2 trifles.
Can be made in advance.

Line two cookie sheets with Silpat/baking parchment/butter and flour

Preheat oven to 300F / 150C

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg yolks with the 1/2 cup of the sugar and the vanilla, until the mixture is thick and light-coloured and forms a flat ribbon falling back upon itself. Once or twice, stop the mixer and scrape down the sides.

With a clean bowl and beater, whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt until foamy. Add remaining 1tblsp of sugar and whip until the whites are stiff but not dry. This stage is signaled when you can turn the bowl upside down and the whites stay put.

Using a rubber spatula, scoop 1/4 of the whites into the yolk mixture and fold them lightly together. Don’t overmix – streaks of the whites should remain. Sift about 1/4 of the flour over the whipped batter, fold the mix over itself a couple of times, then add another 1/4 of the whites and fold gently. Repeat, until all flour and whites are used and you can still see those streaks.

This is the point at which you would get out your piping bag for regular lady-fingers. If you want to do that, pipe fingers that are 3-3.5” long and 1” apart. Then sift them with confectioner’s/icing sugar. For trifle, simply evenly divide the mixture between the two cookie sheets and gently spread into thin sheets. Dust with the icing sugar and bake for about 15-20 minutes until lightly golden.

Remove from oven, cool and then slice into fingers.


Makes enough for 1 large trifle
Best made a day in advance to give it time to cool.

450ml / 2 cups full-fat milk
450ml / 2 cups double/heavy cream
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways scraped
6 egg yolks
175g / 6oz / scant cup of caster/granulated sugar
2 tblsp cornflour/cornstarch

Place milk, cream and vanilla pod/seeds into a saucepan and bring to the boil.
In a large bowl, whisk the yolks with the sugar and cornflour until smooth and pale.
Pour the boiled cream/milk/vanilla mixture over the egg yolks, trickling at first, whisking all the time to temper the eggs.
Return the mix to the saucepan (some people think you should rinse it first), then cook over a gentle heat, whisking or stirring with a wooden spoon until it thickens sufficiently to coat the back of a spoon. Do not boil your custard – it will split. If it looks suspiciously curdle-y, lift it off the heat and whisk firmly.
Pass through a fine sieve and cool thoroughly in the fridge.


Cut up large quantities of the best soft fruits available. I like strawberries, raspberries, peaches and cherries best. But blueberries are also very good. Strawberries and cherries should be halved, raspberries and blueberries left whole, and peaches should be skinned and sliced. Skin peaches by slashing the skin a couple of times, then dunking briefly in boiling hot water. Lift out, rinse under cold water and slip off the skins.

Layer lady-fingers in the bottom of your trifle bowl. Douse them with as much sherry or Marsala as you see fit. They really should be moist, not dry.
Then start layering your fruits.
After the last layer of fruit, spread over the custard. I prefer to not spread it completely to the edges – leave about 1/4” and it will spread itself perfectly.
Now unwrap and crush about 12 Amaretti cookies. Save those papers! Spread the crumbs evenly over the custard. Again, I tend to stop short of about 1/4” from the edge of the custard – so that the Amaretti crumbs don’t fall down the sides of the trifle bowl.

Now whip about 1.5 cups/ 350ml of double/heavy cream. You can add a little brandy if you like. Spread over the entire affair. Some people like to decorate their trifle with toasted sliced almonds. You could also use a handful of left-over whole fruit. Or – just leave plain. As soon as you dig into the trifle, and serve it up, it will all collapse anyway – there is no such thing as an elegant serving of trifle. For that, you would need to make individual trifles, which some restaurants do, but it definitely detracts from the debauchery.


Blogger Andy said...

I'll be right over -- yummy!!!

12:05 pm  
Blogger ronaldo said...

I always thought trifle was a rather peasanty food. You have turned it into something positively regal! I look forward to trying it soon...

2:36 pm  
Blogger Trini said...


Do try it next time with good Marsala!! It's great.

And that trifle looks amazing...

Are there any leftovers? You need help?

5:41 pm  
Blogger goodyoneshoe said...

an inspiration for an Artown (Reno's July festival) picnic! When you make the rose geranium custard ice cream, give us a heads up!

8:08 pm  
Blogger amy h said...

This post is doing a polka on my tongue! Thanks for the link.

2:49 pm  
Blogger acusoup said...

Hi Kate-

I looked at your blog. I love your blog. I want to eat your sandwich, if you don't mind. Also, in a burst of enthusiasm I started my own blog because of the weightlessness of the effort. So there I will be at acusoupography. And of course now I want to meet up and play blog, being a child of the analog era. And of course there is, ahem, the sandwich, and its sublunary manifestaion.

2:27 pm  
Blogger acusoup said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:33 pm  
Blogger doodlebug said...

This trifle, well, words cannot describe! But as one of the privileged few who got actually to taste it, ahhhhhhh. It lived up, I can tell you! In the flesh, it was even more glorious. Though we keep going back to that picture of the peach....

And as I've said before, the leftovers (if there are any!) have all the right ingredients for breakfast: fruit, cream, alcohol...


1:28 pm  
Blogger doodlebug said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to exchange links with your site
Is this possible?

6:53 pm  

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