Revolutionize a classic dessert and find détente in the pie-cake wars with a trifle.
IF YOU thought this country’s most intractable disputes were limited to things like health-care reform and the wisdom of bank bailouts, think again. In fact, judging by the dozens of vitriol-filled online forums devoted to the topic, one of our biggest national divides can be summed up in the simple question, which is better, cake or pie? Trust me, the debate is brutal.
As someone who has always believed in the healing powers of compromise, I’d like to propose a third option: trifle. Not only does it incorporate the best elements of both, it’s better than either.
Not convinced? Consider this: Anything you like about cake or pie can be found in a trifle. A light, velvety sponge? Check. Tangy fruit? Check. Whipped cream? Check. Frosting? OK, there you’ve got me, and admittedly there’s also the sad fact that trifle is one of the few things that isn’t improved with a scoop of ice cream.
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But wait! I haven’t even mentioned how quick and foolproof it is, how easy it is to upsize for a crowd, how it can be made days ahead and how there’s something just so inherently festive about trifle. Really, what more could anyone want?
Trifle is no flash in the pan, either. It actually has one of the earliest-recorded histories of any modern dessert, dating back to at least 15th-century England. You wouldn’t recognize a trifle from those days, though. It was basically set cream perfumed with rosewater and spices. The layered, decadent creation we know today appeared a couple of centuries later, at which point it grew so popular that even other countries started copying it, like the Italians with their zuppa inglese and the cooks of the American South with their tipsy cake.
On its British home turf, though, trifle started to lose its luster. By the 1960s, many of its components were being mass-produced, and time-strapped housewives substituted novelties like canned fruit cocktail and powdered custard mix so they could whip up an impressive dessert for parties and still have time to do their hair. Trifle began to seem cheap and dowdy.
Thankfully, recent years have brought a trifle renaissance on both sides of the pond. And now it’s appearing in ever-more-imaginative incarnations. Which brings me to the final point in trifle’s favor: how flexible it is. As long as you have your five basic components — cake, fruit, custard, booze and cream — the ingredients can be mixed and matched to create an almost limitless number of desserts.
You could, for example, substitute chocolate cake for the sponge, or throw caution to the wind with gingerbread. Flavor your custard with spices or extracts, vary the cookies and nuts (or leave them out) and raid the darkest recesses of your liqueur cabinet for the liquid component.
As for the fruit, just rely on the best of the season. In summer, I love to use simply sugared strawberries or nectarines. In the fall I cook up tangy compotes of apples, pears or plums, and go for rhubarb in the spring. In winter it’s frozen or preserved fruit to the rescue, like the jarred sour cherries I combine with Greek yogurt and almonds in this, one of my all-time favorite trifles. Try it as an impressive centerpiece for an early spring birthday or the finale to next month’s Easter dinner — or, for that matter, at any event where you’d like to broker some peace between the cake- and pie-eaters.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance writer and photographer.
Sour Cherry, Almond & Yogurt Trifle
Serves 8 to 10
For the cherry compote
2 ¼ cups pure cherry juice, divided
4 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
2 (approx. 25 ounces) jars morello (sour) cherries in light syrup, drained (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For the custard
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 egg yolks
2 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup Greek-style yogurt
1 (1-pound) sponge or pound cake, cut into ¾-inch cubes
½ cup amaretto liqueur*
2/3 cup coarsely crushed amaretti cookies
2 cups whipping cream, cold
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup sliced or slivered almonds, toasted
* For an alcohol-free trifle, substitute a simple almond-flavored syrup for the amaretto. Bring 1/3 cup water and 4 tablespoons sugar to a boil, then cool and stir in 1 teaspoon almond extract.
To make the cherry compote. Bring 2 cups of the cherry juice and the sugar to a boil and cook until reduced by half. Add the drained cherries and cook, stirring frequently, 5 minutes. Stir the cornstarch into the remaining 1/4 cup juice and, off the heat, add to the cherries, stirring quickly to distribute. Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until it boils and thickens. Cool and add a little more sugar if needed, but not too much; the compote should be on the tart side.
To make the custard. In a heavy saucepan whisk together the cornstarch, sugar and salt. Whisk in the egg yolks and milk until smooth. Place on medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Boil 30 seconds, then remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl. Stir in the vanilla extract and cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the custard. Refrigerate until cold, then stir in the yogurt.
To assemble. Arrange the cake cubes on the bottom of a large (2- to 3-quart) glass bowl or trifle dish. Drizzle the amaretto on top. Spoon the cherries over the cake and cover them with the custard. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 6 hours. (Up to this point it can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.)
Just before serving, sprinkle the amaretti crumbs over the custard. Whip the cream, sugar and vanilla in a chilled bowl until the mixture holds soft peaks. Spoon the whipped cream over the top of the trifle, swirling decoratively. Sprinkle the toasted almonds on top and serve immediately.