It's Trifle Time!
As retro desserts re-enter the spotlight, here's one to consider
I grew up in the French city that is Montreal, yet within the four walls of my house, the atmosphere could not have been more English. My paternal grandparents were English and Irish, and my dad arrived in Canada from England when he was in his late twenties. As for my mom, her grandparents were of Polish and Ukrainian descent, yet both she and my grandmother were born in Canada. There’s a big difference living with one parent who grew up here and another who did not. As much as my mom craved her family’s pierogis and borscht, my dad had us all drinking tea, watching Monty Python, and making him Ribena drinks. Never heard of Ribena? It’s a concentrated black currant syrup to which we would add hot or cold water. It’s advertised as Britain favourite blackcurrant drink, which makes me wonder how many blackcurrant drinks do they have?
Anyway, my dad brought his Englishness and Irishness into our house far more than my mom brought any of her Ukrainian heritage. Being an anglophile herself, she encouraged it, buying him Scotch eggs and sausage rolls from Marks & Spencer and making kippers (nothing smells up the kitchen more), steak and kidney pie, and blood pudding, or as he called it, “back pudding.”
Every once and a while my dad would request something especially English or Irish from me, his daughter, the cook. And I complied, trying out recipes for soda bread, barmbrack, boxty, mincemeat, plum pudding, Yorkshire pudding and even Battenberg cake.
But around Christmas time, my dad would always request a trifle. For those of you wondering what a trifle is, it’s basically a layered dessert made with sponge cake, fruit, jam, custard and whipped cream. Oh and for a proper British trifle, the cake part is soaked in sherry. The idea is to build it up in a large glass bowl so you can see the alternating layers. In French it’s called a “bagatelle” and it’s about as old-school a dessert as you can get, but it’s a good choice for party because it’s easy enough to make (preferably the night before) and is quite a showstopper when well done.
At first my father asked my mom to make it, and eventually he asked me. I remembered liking my mom’s trifle so I asked her why she stopped making it.
“I couldn’t compete with Auntie Kathleen,” she said.
Oh my… Auntie Kathleen, my father’s beloved aunt who raised him in Ireland during WWII when English kids were evacuated to live with family in faraway lands during the war. Auntie Kathleen was the epitome of everything in my dad’s eyes, and we all knew she could do no wrong. Apparently her stuffing was as good as her trifle, but I could only tackle one recipe at a time.
When my dad eventually asked me to make a trifle, before even cracking an egg I asked him what was so great about Auntie Kathleen’s trifle. “Sherry,” he answered, “a lot of sherry.” The sherry used in trifle is cream sherry, and usually Harvey’s Bristol Cream. I bought a bottle and got going.
As I boiled the custard, sliced the cake, macerated the fruit and whipped the cream, my dad came up to the counter and said, “Don’t forget the sherry.” As I was assembling the layers, he looked over my shoulder and whispered, “More sherry.” By the time I had finished the trifle the bottle of sherry was almost empty. At that point I didn’t even care what the trifle tasted like. I was coerced — no make that bullied! — into making not a trifle enhanced with sherry, but a bottle of sherry enhanced with trifle!
When we finally sat down to eat it, I saw my dad take a bite, and after swallowing, he looked at me and said, "Good, but not enough sherry.” Let’s just say, that was the first and LAST time I made my dad a trifle.
It took me 30 years to revisit the trifle and this time I would do things my way.
I like the custard/cake/cream combination but as for the sherry, not so much. Sorry Brits, but I far prefer kirsch, Cointreau or Grand-Marnier. For the cake part, English bakers are able to purchase trifle sponge at their local supermarkets, but here in Montreal the only alternative is boudoir biscuits, a.k.a. lady fingers, which are ok, but I prefer making a sponge or pound cake.
As she did with Pavlovas, Nigella Lawson has given new life to trifles in recipes made with lemon grass, rhubarb, limoncello, chocolate and cherries, or mascarpone and passionfruit. I love updating classic recipes and will one day rethink the trifle myself. But for this Christmas I wanted to share the traditional recipe, which remains an excellent holiday dessert. And if you use best quality ingredients, trifle is still lovely without any alcohol. Instead, soak the cake layers in red fruit coulis. But if you do decide to go the boozy route, try the orange liqueur over the sherry. Yes, authenticity sticklers will say, “WRONG,” but as I live in Montreal, a “Bagatelle au Grand-Marnier” is the trifle this half English girl in a French city will be enjoying over the holidays.
Maybe next time I’ll make one with maple syrup!
for 12 portions