As my grandmother and other family members of her generation died, items that fell to me were often from their kitchens. There is a set of dented tin measuring cups, the handle of the half-cup measure soldered back on by my grandad, as well as a well-used wire pastry blender with a red painted handle and a flour sifter used for endless batches of the best butter tarts (made with currants, natch). There is also my great-aunt Maud’s trifle bowl, a plain, straight-sided thick glass vessel that keeps falling off (and being glued back on) its stand.
Maud wasn’t really our great-aunt, we learned long after her death, but the second wife of our great-grandfather. She was the only one in the family who actually grew up in the U.K., and, as a result, had a British accent and made oatmeal scones, dense Scottish-style shortbread and trifle.
I make trifle in her bowl every winter, without a recipe to follow. This is the nature of a trifle: there should be no ingredient list. Making one focuses more on the assembly of ingredients that fall loosely into these categories: something cakey, something boozy, something fruity, some custard and some cream. You can even stray from those if you like. Whether or not you use jelly, I learned, depends on what part of the U.K. you or your descendants are from. Aunt Maud did not. From what I can remember, her trifle was a practical mix of cubes of pound cake, jammy fruit, custard and cream. She left the booze out when the grandkids were visiting.
Years ago, my friend, chef and cookbook author Anna Olson, told me about a holiday party she and her husband Michael hosted – a trifle buffet. I’d never heard of anything so wonderful. When her guest list unexpectedly grew at the last minute, she rummaged through the freezer for compatible ingredients, and crumbled a baked apple pie into the base of one bowl, a batch of mini-doughnuts into another. I have made trifle out of gingerbread (layered with poached pears, custard and cream) and a dark fruitcake that broke into pieces when I tried to tip it out of its ornate Bundt pan. Fortunately, friends thought it was intentional and brilliant.
The fact that a trifle is served by the spoonful relieves the cook of any responsibility to adhere to a combination of ingredients that will result in a clean slice. Stiff or saucy is always right. Like so many dishes, trifle originated as a means of upcycling stale baked goods such as days-old cake, crumbled and revived with brandy and dolled up with fruit, custard and cream. This resourceful approach was a necessity generations ago and should become habit again in an era of outrageous food costs and awareness of the environmental consequences of food waste.
Each time I assemble a trifle, I think of Aunt Maud and Anna and my friend Jessica who makes her trifle with sliced store-bought jelly rolls, tinned fruit cocktail and cherry Jell-O like her nanny did, topped with custard and a shower of silver nonpareils. Sometimes, I think I should stick to one combination of ingredients for traditions’ sake, to establish a sense of nostalgia for those eating it. But then I consider that even the word “trifle” is used to mean something frivolous, something not to be taken seriously.
And so I don’t. I use what I have, which might include a chunk of my dad’s favourite lemon cake from the freezer, some stewed rhubarb because I always have too much, custard from scratch if I feel like it, or some made with Bird’s custard powder if I don’t. Layered in Aunt Maud’s bowl (or on a platter if I’m feeling modern; or in jars if sharing is a concern and I’m bringing them somewhere; or with dollops of whipped vegan-friendly coconut cream; or tweaked to be gluten- free), every variation feels correct. Nostalgia does not require sameness, after all, and often it’s the frivolous things that hold the most space in our hearts.
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