When I got divorced, I got the crystal trifle dish that my ex-husband Bill ran out and bought one Christmas Eve when I noticed they were on sale at Williams-Sonoma. But the trifle I make every year at Christmas still bears his name: Bill’s Irish Trifle. It’s not really his recipe, but if it weren’t for him I’d never have made one. I didn’t even know what a trifle was before I married into his Irish family, but I quickly became hooked on it after his mother brought it to our first Christmas dinner. I’ve got a weakness for vanilla custard sauce, and that is the essence of trifle — though Bill and his family would put just as high a priority on the cream sherry that spikes the sponge cake.
An Irish trifle is the same dish as an English trifle, as far as I know. Day-old sponge cake is spread with raspberry jam and doused with cream sherry, then set in the refrigerator overnight with a plate set on top of the cake so it becomes nicely saturated with the sherry. The next day you pour on custard sauce and top it with whipped cream (also spiked with sherry). In summer, fresh berries stand in for the jam.
Generations of the Dillon family made their custard with Bird’s Custard mix, an English boxed cornstarch-thickened custard mix that does not contain eggs. Bill’s late, great-aunties Patricia and Nora, who lived in Santa Barbara and always made delicious trifle for the big family gatherings that took place at their house every summer, swore that this was the secret to their wonderful dessert. They couldn’t imagine making it any other way. My approach is more classic – dare I say French. A génoise in a crème Anglaise topped with crème chantilly. It’s always a hit.
Christmas Trifle (aka Bill‘s Irish Trifle)
You will need one sponge cake (génoise) made with 4 to 6 eggs, such as this one based on Sherry Yard‘s “The Secrets of Baking,” made without the butter.
For the cake:
For the vanilla custard sauce:
For the trifle:
Make the sponge cake:
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Adjust the rack to the center of the oven. Prepare two 2 x 9-inch round cake pans. Brush lightly with soft butter. Line them with a circle of parchment paper and brush the parchment.
- Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Combine the eggs and sugar in the bowl of your mixer and place it over the simmering water, being careful that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Whisk continuously until the temperature reaches 110ºF. Remove from the heat and transfer the bowl to a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whip at high speed for 5 to 8 minutes, until the eggs are four times their original volume, are thick and pale yellow in color, and form a ribbon when lifted and drizzled from a spatula. Turn down the mixer to medium speed and whip for another 2 minutes.
- Add the flour to the foam all in two additions and fold it in carefully with a balloon whisk or a spatula, taking care to scrape the bottom of the bowl where the flour settles, just until it is incorporated. Do not overwork; maintain as much of the foam as possible.
- Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans, filling the pans two-thirds of the way up. Tap each pan lightly on the table 3 times, to eliminate air bubbles. Place the pans in the oven and bake 15 minutes. Switch the pans front to back, and rotate them, then bake another 10 to 12 minutes. Test the cake for doneness by lightly touching the top of it with a finger. The finger indentation should spring right back into place. If it doesn’t, continue baking for 5 to 10 more minutes. The cake is also done when it begins to pull slightly from the sides of the pan.
- Remove the cake from the oven, allow to cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then reverse onto a rack, remove the pan and parchment, and allow to cool for at least 2 hours before using it. Genoise may also be frozen for up to 2 weeks, wrapped airtight.
Make the custard sauce:
- Fill a large bowl with ice.
- Set aside 50 grams of the milk (about ¼ cup) and place the remaining milk and the cream in a medium saucepan. Place the vanilla bean and seeds in the milk and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat, cover tightly and let the milk steep with the vanilla for 15 to 30 minutes. Add half the sugar to the milk, stir for 10 seconds to make sure the sugar doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, and bring to a boil over medium heat.
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar for 30 seconds. Add the 50 grams of milk and whisk together.
- When the milk comes to a boil in the saucepan, turn off the heat. Make sure that the milk is not simmering and whisk about half of it into the egg yolk mixture. Whisk the egg yolk mixture back into the hot milk in the saucepan. Quickly rinse and dry your medium bowl and place it in the bowl of ice with a strainer set on top.
- Place the saucepan back on low heat. Insert a thermometer. Using a rubber spatula, stir constantly and everywhere until you feel the mixture starting to thicken. Stir constantly until the temperature reaches between 165 degrees F/75 degrees C and 180 degrees F/82 degrees C. Remove from the heat and test the thickness by running your finger down the middle of the spatula. It should leave a canal.
- Immediately strain the mixture into the clean dry mixing bowl set in the ice. Stir for a few minutes, then once in a while, until the mixture has cooled. Once cool, transfer to a container, cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use. The custard will continue to thicken.
Assemble the trifle:
- A day ahead, spread a thin layer of raspberry jam over the cake and douse with cream sherry. Cut into squares and arrange in a trifle dish or a glass or ceramic bowl. Place a sheet of plastic on top and set a plate on top of the plastic with a can on top of it to weight the cake. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
- Remove the weight and the plastic from the cake and pour on all of the custard. Return to the refrigerator until ready to serve.
- Before serving, whip the cream to soft peaks. If desired, add a tablespoon (or more) of sherry to the cream. Spoon over the custard in an even layer. Sprinkle freshly grated nutmeg over the whipped cream and serve.
Photo: Sponge cake, custard, jam, and sherry — the ingredients for a sweet holiday dessert. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman