As a teenager, I read too much Jane Austen and became a raging Anglophile. Anything British was all right by me, including British food. I wanted to go round to a pub and order Bangers and Nash, pop down to the high street for Bubble and Squeak, look in at the market for Shepherd’s Pie. Mostly, I had no idea what these foods consisted of or tasted like. But they were English: that was enough.
In my Italian-American house in the New Jersey suburbs, this resulted in nothing but rolled eyes, and I was able to venture no further than orange marmalade slathered on Thomas’ English Muffins. A decade later, on a two-week trip to England with my new husband, I indulged my fantasies.
“Oh my god, it’s an ugly fish with the head still on it!” I screeched when the B&B proprietor brought my morning kippers.
Frank was tucking in to scrambled eggs and bacon, snickering.
At a tearoom in a restored castle, I scraped clotted cream off a scone after nearly spitting out the first dollop. “Feels like glue,” I explained.
Frank chuckled, sipped his coffee, bit into a cheese pastry.
It went on like this as I gamely sampled Toad in the Hole, Spotted Dick (don’t ask; okay, it’s an alleged dessert made of dried fruit and drywall pastry), and steak and kidney pie – all brown, dry, and ugly. Frank ate broiled chops, grilled steak, and charred burgers and shook his head.
“Maybe I’m just ordering the wrong things,” I reasoned.
Then I slunk home to New Jersey and began cooking seriously – mostly Italian and French. But I was still hooked on British books and films, and held onto some vague idea that I just hadn’t tried hard enough to appreciate English food. Meanwhile, I became a mother and we began hosting the family holiday meals. I went searching for dishes I could claim as my own, much as my extended family already revered “Aunt Mary’s Meatballs,” “Noni’s Fried Dough,” and “Mom’s Potato Patties.”
Then came The Trifle – capital T – The, capital T – Trifle. We don’t say The Apple Pie or The Egg Nog, but Brits do say The Trifle. There’s a reason.
While watching a 1990s period British drama (think Downton Abbey without the social media hype), I was struck silent when the butler announced, “I’ll just place The Trifle on the sideboard”: a gleaming, luscious confectionary marvel, with layers of what looked like perfection. When I saw it, in a massive glass high-sided serving piece, I immediately understood the meaning of a forgotten wedding gift — an enormous glass bowl with a glass lid that transformed into a 3-inch stand.
I told Frank that I would be making Trifle for Christmas, and he told my mother, 3000 miles away but due East soon for the holiday. Perhaps he wanted her to talk me out of it. Instead, a large envelope arrived with a small book inside, “The Cooking of the British Isles” by a chef whose ancestor led the mutiny on the Bounty (hey, I’m a writer, I read the Acknowledgements). His reverence for The Trifle was intimidating, his recipe daunting, including rose water, fresh egg custard, fine brandy—not exactly staples in my kitchen.
I faxed my English pen-pal (remember: pre-Internet days!), who replied, “Pish posh. With The Trifle, anything you want to layer will do quite nicely.”
So Frank and I went fruit shopping, tossing every pretty colored thing in the cart. I baked pound cake, cooked vanilla pudding, and we washed and cut up fruit—red and green grapes, orange sections, raspberries, cherries, all sprawling across our counter like tree ornaments. I layered and layered sliced cake and pudding, spooning in a bright purple-red jam from a European looking jar. I even whipped up real cream. How veddy British I was!
The result was slightly lopsided, but stunning, and the 15 relatives, all ages, all palates, all Italian, with no idea what “The Trifle” ought to be, asked for seconds, and thirds. They called it, that first year, “that nice fruit and cake thing.”
“See, British cooking does rock,” I said to Frank.
“Well, British assembly, anyway,” he allowed.
By the next Christmas, it was “Lisa’s Trifle,” and began a 12-year run on our holiday dinner table. I took my pen-pal’s advice and layered anything I wanted. Once it appeared with chocolate pudding (delicious, but visually off); once with kiwi and pomegranate (Christmas-y!); another time with mint flavored whip cream (yum); occasionally with mini chocolate chips scattered among the fruit (kids’ favorite).
Eventually, the glass bowl broke and—as I started to think about college tuition being in the not-so-very-distant-future—I started to work until mid-afternoon on Christmas eve: no time for fussy, time-consuming concoctions. By then there was Lisa’s Bread, Lisa’s Bruschetta, and Lisa’s Chicken Marsala. The Trifle, in true polite British fashion, stepped down without complaint, giving way to a series of bakery-bought cheesecakes and pastries, all lower-case.
“What about making Your Trifle?” Frank asks sometimes when he’s finally hung the lights, often on December 23. “I’ll help.”
“Maybe,” I say, and then forget, or grow exhausted just thinking about all that slicing, stirring, baking, and layering.
I have a different large glass bowl now, without the lid/stand, less dramatic. I notice it when I’m reaching for a wine glass (see college tuition bills, above), and think about The Trifle. And here’s what I know: I’ll make it again, maybe not this year, but eventually because I know now what I didn’t know when I ordered Toad in the Hole: I can take shortcuts (store-bought cake, cream from a tub, ordinary American jam). Yes, that will do nicely.
Lisa’s (Shortcut) Trifle
- Pound cake, sponge cake, or angel food cake
- Fruit jam or preserves (raspberry or mixed berry is my favorite, and looks festive)
- Vanilla (or butterscotch or lemon) pudding
- Whipped cream
- Fruit to layer – lots of it; any combination of berries (blueberry, raspberry, blackberry), and other cut up fruit, including halved grapes; mango, peaches, orange sections, apricots, apples, pears; pitted cherries; kiwi, pomegranate seeds, etc. (Avoid strawberries, bananas, and melon).
- Garnish for top — shaved chocolate or almonds or other nuts; fresh strawberries; sugar candies, crystal sprinkles, your choice!)
Looks prettiest in a large glass bowl, preferably with tall sides.
- Cut cake into ½ inch slices and spread one side with jam.
- Lay slices flat (jam side up) to cover bottom of tall glass bowl.
- Spoon a layer of pudding to cover.
- Add fruit randomly atop pudding, making sure to place a good amount around edges so it can be seen from outside.
- Add a second layer of cake, jam, pudding, fruit. Then a third, and so on, depending on size of bowl and number of guests.
- Finish off with a generous top layer of whipped cream.
- Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
- Remove from refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.
- Add garnish of choice to top. Serve into bowls with a big spoon.
* Options: For variety, or according to taste, you might like to: add drops of a dessert liqueur, brandy or sherry to layers or to the pudding; try chocolate or other flavor puddings; use fresh custard instead of pudding; add orange or lemon zest to whipped cream; make individual trifles in small glass bowls. In a pinch, use Ladyfingers or Vanilla Wafers instead of cake.