The scenario: You’ve been asked to make a dessert for a big holiday celebration, and you’re keen to impress. But maybe you’re daunted by grand sweets. Or worried that it will become disheveled during transport. Or you’ll be busy on the day of the party and need to craft your masterpiece well in advance. In any case, what are you bringing? Trifle.
Science: Why You Should Boil This Custard
The usual advice when making custard is to avoid a hard boil. That’s because too much heat can cause its egg proteins to tightly coagulate and clump together instead of loosely linking into a tender gel. But curdling isn’t a concern here: There’s plenty of liquid diluting the proteins, so they have less opportunity to bond, and the abundant starch from both the cornstarch and cocoa powder also hinders the proteins from linking by thickening the mixture. If anything, the risk is undercooking the custard, which would render it too runny to properly thicken and set up once it’s chilled. So boil away.
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With its contrasting layers of silky custard, jewel-toned fruit, airy cream, and tender cake (usually sprinkled with booze for bonus holiday cheer), trifle is a guaranteed slam dunk. Making it look good doesn’t take much, because the trifle bowl, a footed glass number with straight sides, does a lot of the fancifying work. Once you’ve prepared the components, simply stack them in order and they’ll resemble a cache of gems displayed in a crystal case. The bowl holds everything securely, so there’s little danger of travel-related damage. Best of all, the flavors and textures of a two-day‑old trifle are far superior to those of a freshly made one because the layers have had time to meld into a gloriously creamy, fruity, boozy whole.
Here’s my favorite: a crowd-pleasing combination of chocolate custard, raspberry compote, rum-soaked chiffon, and whipped cream. I hope you like it, because once your guests have a taste, you might be asked to make it year after year.
That Layered Look
Assembling the components in a certain order—fruit, cake, custard, cream—maximizes the trifle’s visual and textural appeal.
Airy whipped Cream; festive Chocolate Decorations You can take your trifle from sumptuous to spectacular by making some striking (but simple) chocolate decorations. Or, for understated elegance, skip the decorations and just whip cream with some sugar—but don’t whip the top layer of cream until the day you’re serving the trifle.
Silky Dark-Chocolate custard Bar chocolate packs richness, body, and big chocolate flavor, but too much of it makes for gritty custard because of its high proportion of cocoa butter. Cocoa powder contains much less cocoa butter but lacks chocolaty richness. Together, though, they make a great team. A couple tablespoons of cocoa powder whisked into the custard base gave it depth. Then I added 4 ounces of a chopped bittersweet chocolate bar along with some butter for more richness and body, as well as vanilla extract and espresso powder to give the chocolate flavor a roasty, toasty boost.
Resilient, Quick-to-Make Chiffon Chiffon cake is ideal for trifle: Its egg-fortified structure remains intact even as it absorbs raspberry juice and rum. Its vegetable oil–enriched crumb stays softer in a chilled dessert than a butter cake would. And if you bake it in a rimmed baking sheet, it cooks and cools quickly and is easy to cut into flat, even squares for arranging in the trifle bowl.
Bright, Cohesive Raspberry Filling Whole berries taste vibrant but lack cohesion, so I made a chunky compote. Half the berries (frozen fruit works well here) went into a bowl while I mashed and simmered the rest with a little sugar and cornstarch to help the juice thicken. Then I combined the two so that the juicy mash was punctuated with whole berries: a multitextured filling that hydrated the cake nicely and contrasted with the rich chocolate custard and cream.