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It's Christmas Eve and a few of you out there still may not have solved the problem of what sort of special treat can you whip up.

Well, may we take a page out of the Old English cookbook and suggest creating a nice trifle to lay before the family.  

Trifle was created in England centuries ago, and has undergone countless evolutions and variations.  

Here are the essentials:  it's a stacked dessert that alternates layers of sponge cake (often soaked in sweet sherry or Madeira) with layers of custard or whipped cream.  Pieces of fruit almost always figure into the scheme, both embedded in the custards or arranged on the top as a garnish.  Of course you can dispense with fruits altogether and develop the theme of chocolate or coffee, for instance.

Try Googling "trifle recipes" and congratulations if you can find any two that are identical.

The one thing you will need for a successful trilfe is a straight-sided glass, crystal or pyrex bowl big enough to accommodate a generous amount of dessert.

This hints at the important secondary purpose of a trifle:  it's supposed to be an eye-dazzling centerpiece of the holiday table.

Let's break down the possibilities, starting with the cake layer. Sponge cake is classic, but can be a little hard to find.  Spongy lady fingers are often used, by the dozen.  But angle food cake or pound cake work just fine.  Here are a few alternate approaches:  shortcake, brownies, vanilla wafer cookies, slices of gingerbread, and especially around Christmastime, red velvet cake.  One thing the cake layer should always have is the ability to soak up a fair amount of booze.

You can skip the cake altogether if you like, and just build layers of fruit in between the layers of custard.  Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries are great choices because of their color.  Sliced bananas provide a good firm foundation.  Mandarin oranges or rings of pineapple colorful choices, as is cherry pie filling.

Custard layers are usually a little more dense and substantial than a whipped cream layer. A standard eggy custard in a good place to start, as is its cousin, vanilla pudding.  Of course any other pudding flavor will work just fine.  Marscapone or traditional cheesecake are great.  Concoctions made with whipped cream cheese, butter and sugar are good vehicles for accent flavors like peppermint, caramel or chocolate.  Pumpkin, as in pumpkin pie filling occurs frequently in trifle recipes as does caramel sauce.  Quite a few recipes manage to work eggnog into the trifle, which is perfectly in tune with the season, usually as a variation on pudding or cheesecake.  And of course, if you want to give a nod toward healthy eating you can build a pudding around yogurt.

The number of chocolate trifle recipes you can find is astounding.  Chopped up chocolate candy bars are ubiquitous, as are every version of brownie you can think of.  Many recipes contrive to give you chocolate three different ways, which is the definition of "death by chocolate".  One recipe I saw has you replicate the revered chocolate "turtle", with pecans and caramel slathered in chocolate.  Another calls for artfully shaved dark chocolate to garnish the top.  And such delicacies as chocolate chips, chocolate flakes, or chocolate mousse round out a potent batting order.

Although most recipes want you to assemble one grand trifle in that big straight-sided tall crystal bowl, you always have the option of creating individual servings in large wine glasses.  Either way, the trifle is intended to make a spectacular visual impression during the best of your holiday dinners.

Here is the recipe for classic trifle.



2 white cake layers baked and cooled

cream sherry

2 pints fresh strawberries

1/4 cup white sugar

1 pint fresh blueberries

2 bananas

1/4 cup orange juice

1 3.5 ounce package of instant vanilla pudding  

2 cups milk

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds

12 maraschino cherries



1.  Slice the strawberries and sprinkle them with sugar.  Cut the bananas into slices and toss them with orange juice.  Combine the pudding mix with milk and beat until smooth.  Cut the cake layers into 1 inch cubes.

2.  Use half the cake cubes to line the bottom of a large glass bowl (preferably with straight sides).  Sprinkle some of the cream sherry on the cake.  Add half of the strawberries on top of the cake, followed by half of the blueberries and then half of the banana slices.  Spread half of the pudding over the fruit.

3.  Repeat step two, adding layers as you go.

4.  In a medium bowl, whip the cream to stiff peaks and spread over top of the trifle.  Garnish with the cherries and slivered almonds.


-Al Spoler 

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
As General Partner of Clipper City Brewing Company, L.P., Hugh J. Sisson is among Baltimore's premier authorities on craft brewing and a former manager of the state's first pub brewery, Sissons, located in Federal Hill. A fifth generation Baltimorean, Hugh has been involved in all aspects of craft brewing.