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A Mere Trifle


Trifle is one of my favorite summer desserts. First, because you can take advantage of the season’s beautiful ripe berries and stone fruits; and second, because it’s easy to put together on short notice, providing you have cake or something to crumble between the layers. Most cake recipes make two 8- or 9-inch layers; a trifle to serve 6 to 12 people will require one cake layer.

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  • To make a trifle, you’ll need a combination of the following:
  • 5 to 6 cups cubed cake (one 8- or 9-inch, 1 to 1 1/2-inch-thick layer)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup flavoring syrup
  • 4 to 5 cups custard, whipped cream filling, lemon curd, or mousse
  • 3 to 4 cups berries or diced, peeled fruit
  • 1/2 to 1 cup garnish: shaved chocolate, toasted chopped nuts, cookie crumbs, toasted coconut, whatever you prefer.
  • Moist White Cake:
  • 2 3/4 cups (11 3/4 ounces) Guinevere Cake Flour
  • 1 3/4 cups (13 ounces) sugar (Baker’s Special or superfine works best)
  • 1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup (3 1/4 ounces) vegetable shortening
  • 5 large egg whites (6 to 7 ounces)
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • Rich Chocolate Cake:
  • 3/4 cup (4 3/4 ounces) vegetable shortening
  • 2 cups (15 ounces) brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup (3 ounces) Dutch-process cocoa (or our Double-Dutch Cocoa, or 1/2 cup natural cocoa + 1/4 cup black cocoa)
  • 3 large eggs (6 ounces)
  • 2 1/4 cups (9 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 1/3 cups (10 5/8 ounces) water
  • Lemon Curd Whipped Cream:
  • 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups (19 ounces) lemon curd, homemade or bottled
  • Cherry Filling:
  • 1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (5/8 ounce) Instant ClearJel(R) or cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) water
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) cherry brandy, white wine, or water
  • 3 to 4 cups (10 to 14 ounces) pitted fresh or frozen cherries (about 2 pounds unpitted)
  • 1 cup (5 to 6 ounces) dried sour cherries
  • Pastry Cream:
  • 3 cups (24 ounces) whole milk
  • 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1/3 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon (1/4 ounce) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick, 2 ounces) butter
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) heavy cream, whipped
  • Almost-Instant Custard Filling:
  • 1 large box (5.1-ounce size) instant vanilla pudding mix
  • 2 cups (16 ounces) cold milk (whole, low-, or nonfat, your choice)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) heavy cream
  • Stabilized Whipped Cream:
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 package (a scant 1 tablespoon, 1/4 ounce) unflavored gelatin or 5 sheets gelatin
  • 1 pint (16 ounces) heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) Baker’s Special sugar or granulated sugar
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup fruit puree or finely diced fruit (optional)
  • Simple Syrup:
  • 1 cup (7 1/4 ounces) sugar
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) water, or a combination of water, juice, and liquor or liqueur
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, or 2 to 3 allspice, or orange or lemon rind, or ginger (optional)
  • Blueberry Lemon Curd Trifle:
  • 1 layer Moist White Cake
  • vanilla simple syrup
  • 4 1/2 cups (1 recipe) Lemon Curd Whipped Cream
  • 2 pints fresh blueberries (about 1 pound)
  • Coconut Cream Trifle:
  • 1 layer white or coconut cake, cut into cubes
  • 1/4 cup (2 1/4 ounces) simple syrup
  • 1 recipe pastry cream OR 1 recipe custard filling
  • 2 to 3 bananas, peeled and sliced (optional)
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups coconut crunch (below)
  • Coconut Crunch:
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup (2 5/8 ounces) light brown sugar
  • 2 to 3 cups (8 to 10 ounces) shredded coconut, unsweetened preferred
  • Berries and Cream Trifle:
  • 1 layer of cake, your choice of flavor
  • 3 to 4 cups (1 to 1 1/2 pounds) berries (strawberries, raspberries or blueberries)
  • 1/4 cup (2 1/4 ounces) simple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional) OR 2 to 3 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 recipe stabilized whipped cream or custard
  • Black Forest Trifle:
  • 1 layer Rich Chocolate Cake (5 to 6 cups cake cubes)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup simple syrup, mixed with 2 tablespoons kirschwasser (cherry brandy), or brandy, or cherry juice
  • 1 recipe pastry cream or stabilized whipped cream about 3 1/2 cups (1 recipe) cherry filling fresh cherries with stems on, for garnish dark chocolate shavings or curls, for garnish



Step 1

Moist White Cake:

This is a very fine-grained, very white (rather than yellow) cake. It’s my favorite base for a lemon and blueberry trifle, or a strawberry and cream version. To make coconut cream trifle (find the recipe farther along in this article), we make the following adjustments: leave out the almond flavor, add 2 to 3 drops coconut flavor or 1 teaspoon coconut extract, and fold 1 cup toasted coconut into the batter. You may divide the white cake batter in half, and flavor half with coconut and leave half plain to make two different trifles.

Place all the dry ingredients into a bowl, and mix for 2 minutes on slow speed to blend and aerate them. Add the butter and shortening and mix to form a "paste," then add the egg whites, half at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition to begin building the structure of the cake. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

In a separate bowl or cup, whisk together the milk and extracts, and add this mixture to the ingredients in the bowl one-third at a time, again beating after each addition until the mixture is very fluffy, and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Pour the batter into two greased and floured or parchment-lined 8- or 9-inch round pans. Bake the cake in a preheated 350F oven for 23 to 26 minutes (for 8-inch pans), or 25 to 30 minutes (for 9-inch pans). Remove the cake from the oven, and cool it on a wire rack. Save one layer for the trifle, and wrap and freeze the extra layer for another time.

Rich Chocolate Cake:

In the bowl of your mixer, beat together the shortening, sugar, vanilla, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Beat in the cocoa, then the eggs, one at a time, being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl. The mixture will start to become fluffy by the time you add the third egg. Add the flour and water in three additions, beating just until evenly blended after each addition.

Divide the batter between two greased and floured (or parchment-lined) 8- or 9-inch cake pans. Bake the cakes in a preheated 350°F oven for 32 to 36 minutes (shorter for the 8-inch layers, longer for the 9-inch), until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and cool them in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn them out onto a rack to cool completely. Use within 24 hours, or freeze for future use. Yield: two 8- or 9-inch layers.

Lemon Curd Whipped Cream:

This is one of my very favorite fillings. It’s a sinfully rich combination of whipped cream and lemon curd, its sweetness tempered by the refreshing taste of lemon.

Whip the cream just until thick—it shouldn’t even hold a peak. Add the lemon curd, and whip until the mixture holds a soft peak. Yield: 4 1/2 cups cream, enough for 1 trifle.

Cherry Filling:

This is the choice for Black Forest Trifle, which features a traditional combination of cherries and chocolate.

Mix all of the ingredients together in a medium-sized saucepan, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook until thickened, adding additional sugar to taste. Yield: about 3 1/2 cups.

Pastry Cream:

This is the delicious filling you’ll often find in eclairs, on in Boston Cream Pie.

In a medium-sized saucepan, stir together 2 1/2 cups of the milk, the sugar, salt, and the vanilla bean. (If you’re using vanilla extract, you’ll add it at the end.) Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat.

Meanwhile, whisk the cornstarch, flour, and egg yolks with the remaining 1/2 cup of milk.

Temper the egg yolks by whisking some of the boiling milk mixture with the egg yolk mixture, then putting the result back into the hot milk mixture, and returning to the heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, strain through a fine sieve, and stir in the butter and vanilla extract (if you’re using it). Rub a piece of butter over the surface of the cream, top with a piece of plastic wrap, then refrigerate until cool.

To complete, fold the cooled cream into the whipped cream. Yield: 5 cups.

Almost-Instant Custard Filling:

This "faux pastry cream" is a snap to make, and absolutely delicious.

Prepare the instant pudding with the milk, according to the package directions. Whip the cream with the vanilla just until it will hold a soft peak. Fold the cream into the pudding. Keep refrigerated till ready to use. Yield: 5 cups.

Stabilized Whipped Cream:

Use this whipped cream when you want to make the trifle ahead of time; it’ll stay fresh and thick, and not get watery.

Place the water and vanilla in a small, heatproof cup. Sprinkle with the gelatin, and let the gelatin soften for about 5 minutes. Microwave the gelatin briefly, to melt it (or transfer the gelatin mixture to a small saucepan, and heat over low heat till it melts). Stir to be sure the mixture is smooth, and set it aside to cool for about 10 minutes, to room temperature.

Beat the heavy cream and sugar just until the mixture begins to thicken, but doesn’t yet hold a peak. Add the gelatin mixture while beating on slow speed. Beat just until the whipped cream will hold a peak, then fold in the fruit purée or diced fruit, if you’re using it. Yield: 4 cups.

Simple Syrup:

Brushing your cake with simple syrup before crumbling or cutting it, or tossing the cut cake with syrup, will ensure it stays moist in the trifle.

You may choose to add a flavoring to the syrup, in the form of liquor or a citrus rind. For example, combine 3/4 cup water with 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, and a piece of vanilla bean or the rind of an orange, lemon or lime. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat, allow to cool, then strain if necessary. Store in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use. Yield: 1 cup, enough for 4 cake layers.

OK, now that you’ve got the building blocks—let’s make trifle!

Blueberry Lemon Curd Trifle:

This is my favorite, the one I make on special occasions.

Brush the cake with the vanilla syrup, and cut it into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes.

Layer the cake, cream, and fresh blueberries in a trifle bowl, reserving some of the cream to pipe into rosettes on the top. Refrigerate for several hours before serving. Yield: 1 trifle, about 12 servings.

Coconut Cream Trifle

Attention, all of you with a weakness for tropical flavors—this one’s for you!

Before you start, be sure that your bowl and beaters are clean, so that the egg whites will whip up nicely. Beat the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt on medium-slow speed until foamy. Gradually increase the speed until the eggs begin to thicken. Beat in the sugar, a bit at a time, continuing to beat until the meringue is glossy and firm. Fold in the coconut.

Spread the mixture onto a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet. Bake the crunch in a preheated 350°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, using a spatula to turn and break apart the mixture every 10 minutes to help it brown evenly. When finished, the crunch should be a deep golden brown. Remove it from the oven and cool completely. Store in an airtight container, for 1 week or more. Yield: 2 1/2 to 3 cups.

Toss the cake cubes with 1/4 cup simple syrup; one flavored with a bit of rum is nice. Place one-fourth of the cubes into a trifle bowl. Top with pastry cream mixed with whipped cream (or custard filling); a layer of sliced bananas (if you like); more cake cubes, more cream or custard, then finish with a thick layer of the coconut crunch. Refrigerate for an hour or so before serving. Yield: 1 trifle, 12 servings.

Berries and Cream Trifle:

When berries are in season, this trifle showcases them nicely.

Reserve some of the berries whole, for a garnish. Take the remaining berries, and slice them (strawberries); or crush about one-quarter (raspberries or blueberries), and combine with the remaining uncrushed berries, the syrup. and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Allow this fruit mixture to sit for 1 hour or so.

Layer the cake, berries, and custard or whipped cream, then repeat, garnishing with the whole berries on top. Yield: 1 trifle, 12 servings.

Black Forest Trifle:

Toss the cake cubes with the syrup. Layer the cake and fillings in the trifle bowl, alternating the custard or stabilized whipped cream with the cherry filling, and finishing with the pastry cream on top. Garnish with fresh cherries and chocolate curls, if desired. Yield: 1 trifle, 12 servings.

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