It’s the holidays! Which means it’s time for impressive desserts, like trifles and Christmas pudding. I broke out Nigella Lawson‘s How to Be a Domestic Goddess for info and inspiration. But when I read the first line of the section — “I came to trifle relatively late in life, which is probably just as well.” — I knew I needed guidance from another source.
So I turned to our British friend, Helen — smart, funny, and never without an opinion, I knew she could help explain the various layers of complicated feelings around this traditional English dessert. Here’s what she had to say — plus, of course, some recipes.
So, trifles — what’s the deal? Why are they such popular Christmas desserts in England?
They’re impressive — trifle counts as an “occasion” dessert, but it’s easier than a Christmas pudding.
Christmas pudding is very involved?
Oh, God, yes! It takes months! You have let it stew in alcohol for ages. My family would buy one that came in a ceramic basin and you’d boil it for hours and then put in coins and charms and whoever finds them has good luck. Then when you serve it, you douse it in brandy and flame it. I don’t think people make their own anymore.
I know you’re not really a fan of trifle, and Nigella doesn’t seem to be, either. Why not?
That’s where class comes in. It’s so British! In nice homes, you would never have it, you’d have Christmas pudding. When you say trifle, it means — common. I never grew up with them. It’s not a posh thing to do. People like Nigella would think of horrible dry cake soaked in cheap sherry and layered with red Jell-o, mandarin oranges, or pineapple — things from a can — and bright yellow custard. Then topped with candied cherries and maybe sliced almonds.
But made with good, fresh ingredients, a trifle could be nice, right?
Yes, and they look good because of the layering. And a trifle is quick to make even though it’s best to let the boozy cake soak overnight. But you need a real trifle bowl — a large glass dish with deep sides. That’s the essence of it all. It can involve any kind of cake, but lady fingers are often used in England. Pound cake works, too. Then you pour alcohol over, add jam and fruit, and put whipped cream on top.
Nigella‘s Easy Holiday Trifle — with dried apricots, pistachios, and Greek yogurt — seems to be popular….
I don’t know, dried apricots — seems like chewiness might be an issue! It’s about texture — you want it to be soft. Something light and soft — like raspberries — may be better. You want to avoid a really “solid” feeling — trifle should be an antidote to Christmas pudding, which is dense. And make the alcohol nice alcohol!
Alcohol, by the way, may be traditional, but isn’t mandatory. There are tons of recipe variations out there. And, sans alcohol, the kids are bound to love it — cake + custard + fruit and whipped cream = way kid-friendly.
Here are a few that sound worth trying if you’re feeling in the trifle way this holiday season.
Grand Raspberry Trifle (pictured)