Cranberry Trifle: A Blueprint for the Perfect Holiday Dessert

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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I didn't grow up with trifle per se, but down South we love a good tipsy pudding, which is similar in all the important ways: a combination of cake, booze, fruit, and cream or custard (or both). And while purists may insist on drowning the whole thing in an eggy pudding and sherry, I'm a little more flexible when it comes to assembly. In fact, so far as I'm concerned, most every element is up for grabs.

In this seasonal variation, I combine fluffy angel food cake, bittersweet amaro, homemade cranberry jam, and whipped mascarpone sweetened with maple syrup. The elements work to both complement and contrast each other as one harmonious composition. There's a lot of wiggle room when it comes to assembly, so long as substitutions are able to play a similar role in terms of structure and flavor.

For example, a tart orange marmalade might stand in nicely for the cranberry jam, but sweet blueberry preserves would turn the trifle into a sugar bomb. Meanwhile, ladyfingers (whether store-bought or homemade) are light enough to replace angel food cake, but a pound cake would be too dense and rich.

By that same token, don't feel like this trifle demands you run out and buy a bottle of Cardamaro—the Italian amaro you may recall as the secret weapon in my tiramisu. It has a natural affinity for mascarpone, and plenty of aromatic oopmh, but the same could be said of more traditional options, like sherry or rum. The point is to make use of what you've got while staying within the basic framework of the dessert.

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But enough about hypotheticals, let's get down to the specifics of this recipe, starting with the jam.

Fresh cranberries are available for such a limited time, I can't help but avail myself of them when I can—plus, their bright pop of color and acidity is the perfect contrast to angel food cake. They also bring a festive dose of holiday cheer.

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For a quick jam, I combine the whole fruit with cranberry juice, elderflower liqueur, and lightly toasted sugar, plus whatever aromatics I have on hand—in this case orange peel and a cinnamon stick.

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Again, if you don't have a bottle of St. Germain kickin' around your liquor cabinet, anything sweet and floral will do: think crème de violette and chrysanthemum honey liquor, or even apple juice doctored with a spoonful of rosewater. The point is to leverage the power of aromatics to open up the cranberry's profile.

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Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently, if not constantly, and continue cooking until most of the cranberries have popped and the mixture is jammy but not too thick (it will thicken significantly as it cools). Cover and set aside until needed, up to several hours at room temperature.

Meanwhile, use a bread knife to slice an angel food cake into 1-inch slabs for cubing. No judgement here if you want to rock and roll with a store-bought cake, but my method for homemade angel food cake couldn't be easier. In a trifle, it's okay if the cake is a little stale, so it can be baked off up to a week in advance to streamline the process.

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I'm lucky enough to have my grandmother's trifle dish, but any large bowl will do, or you can assemble mini-trifles in parfait dishes instead. However you go about it, the order of assembly is cake, booze, jam, cream, and so on until the dish is full.

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After covering the bottom of the dish with chunks of cake, sprinkle generously with booze, but stop shy of soaking the cake so it still has enough structure to hold up against the moisture of the jam.

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For the cream layer, I used my recipe for Greek yogurt whipped with golden syrup and cream as a template, but with mascarpone and maple syrup instead. It only takes a few moments to prepare, so it can be brought together at the last minute, but it also holds up quite well in the fridge, if you'd find it helpful to whip it up a day or two in advance.

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Once you've spread the mascarpone into an even layer, the process begins again with another round of cake. The specific dimensions of a given trifle dish will determine how many layers it will accommodate, so in the end you may have a bit of one component to spare. In my case, I used a piping bag fitted with a plain tip to turn a bit of leftover mascarpone into a few decorative swirls, but leftovers can otherwise be treated as a stealth snack.

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Whether you follow my recipe verbatim, or use it as a springboard for your own flavor pairings, a seasonal trifle is an ideal dessert for your holiday menu, offering up a few perfectly balanced bites to conclude a festive meal.