By Edward Schneider
On a recent transatlantic trip, Jackie and I spent some long-earned British Airways frequent flier miles on a ride in business class. There was good wine, friendly, attentive service (with the women among the cabin crew wearing smart retro hats!) and, on this 32-passenger flight to London City Airport, surprisingly wide, long and comfortable flat beds: we could hardly have asked for much more. On the way to the UK, we slept and so didn’t have to think about airplane food; on the way back, we didn’t want to think about airplane food and before going to the airport had a fine quick lunch of potted shrimps, a sort of smoked haddock Welsh rarebit and fried monkfish cheeks here.
We still took a look at the menu, however, and some of the options would have been tempting if we hadn’t already eaten, though I can’t vouch for how they tasted. But there was one thing we couldn’t resist: sherry trifle. Layers of fruit and/or fruit gelatin, sherry-soaked lady fingers or cake, thick custard and whipped cream, maybe with some nuts for crunch: trifle really is the perfect dessert, touching all the cream/fruit bases and pushing all the booze/cake buttons – or nearly all: there’s no caramel and only incidental salt. But I’d trade a gallon of butterscotch praline ice cream for a bowl of good trifle any day. (Well, maybe not any day.)
The British Airways version was classic and irreproachable – an encouraging surprise, even in business class, don’t you think?
At home, my trifle making varies a great deal. It always includes a thickened custard – something on the way to pastry cream, but with less cornstarch or flour. Typically, it will be three egg yolks whisked with a third cup sugar, some vanilla (either scraped out of the pod or good extract) and a tablespoon of cornstarch; and a cup of milk (or three quarters milk and a quarter cream), brought to the simmer then slowly whisked into the egg mixture. This is returned to the pan and heated until it bubbles and thickens – with cornstarch it doesn’t need longer cooking than that. Just taste it to make sure it doesn’t feel starchy on the tongue. Then it is left to cool, with plastic wrap or waxed paper laid onto the surface to prevent crusting. Note that I put no salt into this custard – it may be the only thing, apart from tea, in which I don’t use salt – and I don’t drink tea.
The rest is assembly, and should be done a few hours before dessert time. I often use store-bought Italian lady fingers, and sometimes use slices of home-made pound cake, either one generously soaked in dry (Fino) sherry – don’t be tempted to use cream sherry just because this is a dessert: it will be cloying. A layer of this goes into the bottom and a ways up the sides of a glass bowl, then some fruit, which can be slices of poached peaches or pears (sometimes with the cooking liquid set with gelatin); halved or sliced strawberries left for an hour sprinkled with sugar; or even, in a trifle emergency, a smear of strawberry or raspberry jam. Then a layer of custard, more cake, more fruit, more custard, etc. Try to finish with custard.
Refrigerate for a couple of hours at least. When it is time to serve, top with whipped cream and, if you have any, toasted sliced almonds.
Serve with the biggest spoons that you and your fellow diners can fit in your mouths.