Okay, I know we’re all supposed to be full of eager enthusiasm about our New Year’s resolutions right now, their being brand new and all. Everybody’s hitting the gym, and trying to eat more vegetables and less junk, or to be more patient with all the people involved in the horrendous airline industry who make you wait in lines or on hold for hours at a time only to cancel your flights and then reroute you only after extensive convincing and still charge you that ridiculous $20 for your luggage plus fees for overweight baggage, even though it’s really not your fault that it’s impossible to pack light if you’re visiting Minnesota in the winter (it’s 20 below out people, come on)….That is to say, this is admittedly probably not the best time to be sharing tips on making decadent party desserts. But hey, Valentine’s Day is right around the corner! Plus, my personal resolution is to cut myself a little more slack, which I’ve determined for this moment means not worrying about the timing of this post and writing it anyway, just because I want to. So, on with the trifle!
I was recruited to be the provider of dessert for our group of friends’ New Year party, and a special request was made for my chocolate trifle. (I can be a bit predictable. If I make something that turns out to be a good potluck or party dish, I tend to come back to it over and over; and then it starts to be requested, so I can’t stop anyway!) I was more than happy to oblige (a little relieved, even) because I find that trifle is a dessert that suits the way I cook quite well. You can do a lot of mixing and matching and playing with various berries, cake and cream flavors etc.; you barely need a recipe; and most importantly, you can make an aesthetic muck of all the respective parts of the trifle, but once you assemble it into layers, no one can tell how messy the process was.
At its most basic, all you need for trifle is some cake, some berries, and some whipped cream. Then, if you want to add, embellish, and go all pastry chef on the dessert, you can also add a custard or pudding layer, sprinkle the cake pieces with liqueur or coffee, or pieces of chocolates, cookies, candies, or fruits layered on or folded into the whipped cream, and something pretty as garnish on top. I usually make the cake myself, but I’ve never been very particular about what recipe I use because in my book, the whipped cream trumps the cake. Then again, whipped cream is my favorite food, so others might feel slightly more strongly about what cake they use. I usually make something along the lines of a pound cake because I like the cake chunks to be moist on their own, even without drizzling them with syrup or brandy or what have you. Whatever flavor cake you choose to make though, just make a half recipe and bake it in pretty much any shaped pan (until a toothpick inserted in it comes out clean). It doesn’t have to look great because you’re going to crumble it into pieces anyway.
Think about the combinations of flavors you like in a dessert – I think this is pretty easy for even the least experienced cooks to do – and you can use these to inspire your choice for cake type, berry or fruit type, and flavoring for whipped cream. I guess you don’t even need to have berries if you don’t want (I’m imagining chocolate cake chunks, drizzled with caramel sauce, sprinkled with pecans, and layered with whipped cream that has been sweetened with brown sugar and spiked with bourbon). For New Year’s I had some dark chocolate chips left from Christmas baking and homemade cherry jam that I had received as a present, so I decided use the classic combination (of Cherry Garcia fame) to make a chocolate cherry trifle.
I started out planning on making a chocolate pound cake from the fabulous cookbook The New Best Recipes by the folks at America’s Test Kitchen. However, while their recipes really may be the best (everything turns out spectacular because they’ve tested them gazillions of times) they can also be a huge pain for the casual cook. So, I swiftly decided to substitute a whole egg for a couple of egg yolks, add the dry ingredients all at once instead of in micro-phases, and add a titch of baking soda for leavening, in case I hadn’t beaten the eggs for long enough. It was unconventional, and didn’t look too pretty, but it tasted moist and chocolaty, which was all I needed.
Chocolate Cherry Trifle
For cake (this is already halved, so make the whole recipe):
- 1 stick (8 Tbs.) of butter, softened
- 1 cup plus 3-4 Tbs. sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- ¾ tsp. water
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¾ cup flour
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
For the layers:
- creamy chocolate mousseor 2 cups heavy cream whipped with ¼ cup sugar and ¼ cup cocoa powder until gently stiff peaks form.
- Good cherry jam (this is also delicious with strawberries or raspberries)
- A small amount of leftover coffee (optional)
Other: A large glass bowl or wine glasses for individual servings
- Preheat the oven to 325, and grease a bread loaf pan, or another small baking pan. Beat the butter with an electric mixer for about 15 seconds, until shiny. Sprinkle in the sugar and beat the mixture 4-5 minutes, until it is white and fluffy. You’ll have to stop and scrape the stuff off the edges a couple of times.
- Add the eggs, vanilla, and water, and beat until well mixed. Sprinkle the flour, salt, baking soda, and cocoa powder over the wet ingredients, and mix again until everything is incorporated, once again scraping down the sides into the bowl to make sure everything gets mixed.
- Scrape the batter into your baking pan and bake for about 40 minutes (depending on how big the pan you’re using is), until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and let rest in the pan for a few minutes. Then, run a knife around the edge of the pan, and flip the cake out onto a cooling rack, and allow it to cool to room temperature. If you’re as impatient as me that day, you may cut the cake into pieces and spread it out somewhere cool to speed this process along, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend such behaviors. You can make the mousse/whipped cream in the mean time.
- Once the cake is cooled, you can assemble the trifle. This is where it is handy to have a large glass bowl because if your bowl isn’t clear, you can’t see how lovely the layers are. (If you want to make individual servings, you can assemble little trifles into wine/parfait glasses instead.) Take some of the cake and break it into smaller chunks (around 1 inch squares or smaller), and cover the bottom of the bowl. If desired, sprinkle a little of the cold coffee over the cake pieces to moisten them. Then, dollop with spoonfuls of jam, or if it is highly spreadable, spread the jam over the cake chunks (if you had berries, this is where you would sprinkle in a layer of berries). Spoon whipped cream over this and spread it to cover the layer. Repeat with cake, jam/berries, and cream to make as many layers as you want (or as many as will fit), finishing with cream. Garnish with something pretty like chocolate shavings (or chips if that’s all you have!), a few dried cherries, or a sprinkling of cookie crumbs. Cover, and allow to chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving. A longer time chilling will allow the flavors to blend more and the cake to soak up more moisture.
- Make sure you don’t eat too big of a dinner!