When I think about layers, several different images pop into my head. The scientist part of me immediately goes to sedimentary rock…layers upon layers of compressed silt and mud from ancient sea beds, trapping and fossilizing plants and animals alike. Southern California has many places where those rocks were thrust up into hills and mountains, exposing beautiful layers to view and for discovery (I remember visiting an area north of Los Angeles on a school field trip many, many moons ago). The mother in me thinks about layering clothing, as in “I’m cold, put on a sweater.” But the chef in me holds the title…I think about the gooey goodness of lasagna and moussaka. I think about slicing into a delicious layer cake (my younger daughter, a fantastic cake decorator, once made me a gorgeous rainbow layer cake for my birthday, since she knew that rainbow was my favorite color). And I think about Trifle, that fluffy dessert concoction that is all about the layers.
Trifle brings up its own set of images for me…English garden parties on a country estate, flouncy flowery dresses and hats, tea (Perhaps I was a minor royal in a previous life? Who can tell…). But the main distinction about Trifle is its presentation…colorful and contrasting layers in a (usually) straight-sided glass bowl. I mean there really isn’t a recipe needed to make Trifle, just guidelines. You use something creamy (like pudding and whipped cream), some fruit (for color and texture), a sweetness intensifier (think jam or a dessert sauce…because the pudding/whipped cream isn’t sweet enough [she said sardonically]), and something baked for texture and/or crunch (pound cake is traditional, but any sort of tea bread, brownies, or cookies, whole or crumbled, would work as well). You can drizzle liquors or juices on the baked goods to soften them and add more flavor (and buzz your guests) if you want. In other words, you can adapt Trifle to fit most any season, holiday, or celebration.
No, the beauty of Trifle is how you present all these ingredients to make a picture-worthy dish. Now, as good as a chef as I am, I’m also a klutz and not very good at presentation, hence my motto: if it tastes good, forget if it doesn’t look Pinterest-perfect! (Well, that’s more my credo than my motto…I’m not that pretentious). My point is that, try as I might, I always mess up the layers when I assemble the Trifle in the requisite Trifle bowl. I’ll drizzle the jam on the walls of the glass bowl, then make a smear when I try to clean it up, or the fruit will sink into the pudding so I have to keep adding more and more to try and even it out until one side sinks down like a reverse geyser into the lower layers. ** SIGH ** Stratification is HARD! (Hey, do you want some cheese with that whine?!) Anyway, the idea is to try (as best you can), to spoon the pudding, fruit, jam, cake, liquor, and whipped cream into the bowl so the layers are clean and separate, then decorate the top layer (usually the whipped cream) to finish off your masterpiece.
Because of the simple nature of the components, quality is key here. Yes, you can use ready-made whipped cream, boxed puddings, and store-bought pound cake (and I have done it, too) – in a pinch Trifle comes together very quickly and isn’t the first dessert that comes to mind for most people, so it’ll be different from the usual suspects on the dessert table. But this blog is about home baking, so you know I’ll be advocating to make what ingredients you can from scratch. I’m talking about the cake or cookies..of course yours will be better than the store – you don’t use preservatives at home! For the pudding, homemade pudding is so good, and relatively easy to make. It just needs more time than the boxed stuff to chill before use. As for the whipped cream…c’mon, do you really want all those additives and stabilizers in your diet when you can literally whip up a pint of heavy cream in a couple of minutes?
Another benefit of Trifle is that it is scalable, i.e., you can make a full batch in a large Trifle bowl, or make Trifle’s younger sister, the Parfait, in as many individual serving containers as you need. Since I moved to Boston, a lot of my kitchen stuff is in storage back in California, including my Trifle bowl (we didn’t know how long we’d be here, and now the unit is so full I can’t get to a lot of my kitchen stuff). Back to my point (I remember, don’t worry)…instead of a large bowl, use low-ball glass tumblers or pint-sized Ball jars for serving, or something else with clear glass sides. Actually, the preparation of the layers is a little easier with the parfait as there is less space to mess up (although I do manage to somehow). That’s why I’m not really giving a traditional recipe for Trifle with amounts needed for each ingredient…you judge how much you’ll need based on what type of glass container you use and how many servings you need.
I will give you a recipe for a wonderful basic Pound Cake. Remember Michael Ruhlman and his book, Ratios? (This again?) If you’ve forgotten or you’re new here (welcome!!), go to …and now to explain the “& Scones” to reacquaint yourself with the concept. It’s ok…I’ll wait…hmmm…what should I make for dinner?…Oh good, you’re back. The ratio for pound cake is literally it’s name, a pound of each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour (so it’s 1:1:1:1), combined in that order. A full pound of each ingredient will make two large loaves of cake (made in a standard 9” loaf pan), so half a pound of each ingredient will make one large or 4 small cakes. Ruhlman has a wonderfully informative chapter in his book about Pound Cake and Sponge Cake explaining how varying the amounts or the mixing method of the ingredients affects the overall result. I recommend this book highly as I really learned a lot from it and use it (and it’s accompanying iPhone app) constantly (and no, I’m not being paid to say that!).
Ok, back to the recipe:
Basic Pound Cake
- 8 oz (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
- 8 oz (1 cup + 2 Tbsp) sugar
- 1 tsp salt (if using unsalted butter)
- 4 eggs, at room temperature and slightly beaten (a large egg is about 2 oz)
- 8 oz (about 1 3/4 cups) all purpose flour
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch loaf pan.
- Beat the butter with a mixer at medium speed for about a minute to lighten, then add the sugar and salt and cream together at a medium-high speed until the mixture is light in color and the volume has increased.
- Mix in the eggs, one at a time, making sure they are fully incorporated after each addition.
- Slowly add in the flour and mix at a medium-low speed until just incorporated.
- Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for about an hour until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
- Cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool cake completely.
Yield: 1 9-inch cake
That’s it! Easy, right? This recipe can be flavored with liquors, fruit juices & zests, and/or food flavorings like vanilla, almond, or rum…just mix those in before you add in the flour. The finished cake can be glazed or served as is, or you can cut it up into cubes and layer it into your Trifle. By the way, making parfaits is a great way to use up leftover tea breads!
Traditionally, Trifle is made with vanilla pudding, berries & matching jam (strawberries or raspberries), pound cake, whipped cream, and perhaps rum. But how about bananas, and banana bread or vanilla cookies instead? Butterscotch pudding, pumpkin butter and pumpkin bread with gingersnaps? Or chocolate pudding, raspberries, brownies with chocolate sauce (I’m sensing a theme here…). The mind boggles. The trifle I’ve pictured in the header and below was made with Caramel Banana Pudding from Dessert for Two, leftover Chocolate Chip Banana Bread, and bananas and blueberries. See, I told you I wasn’t great at the layering…luckily it tasted wonderful!
I hope you’ll cut loose and let your imagination go wild (with Trifle combinations, I mean). Let me know how you make your Trifle, and send me a picture, too! Happy layering!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!