I grew up in an observant Jewish home, so Christmas celebrations were a foreign concept to me. I was much more familiar with latke parties and Friday night Shabbat dinners. My notions of the holiday were drawn mainly from television and movies, and, needless to say, these celebrations were sanitized versions—made up of twinkling lights, stockings, gifts under a tree, frosted cookies, and snow falling softly outside the window. Every year, I especially looked forward to watching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which lent my holiday visions an English accent, complete with giant roasts and festive pudding. With all this in mind, a very English trifle—that lavish dessert of cake, custard, jam, and cream served in a deep bowl—seemed like the perfect introductory recipe to our December issue.
I felt this trifle had to be tipsy with Sherry, and here it’s all over—soaked into the cake and mixed into the billowy cream that crowns the top. Almond is a good complement to the nutty notes of Sherry (plus, I adore anything almond-flavored), so I decided to introduce it into the cake by way of marzipan, plus a little almond extract to boost its flavor. A rich vanilla custard holds it all together. And, of course, red had to come in somewhere. Here it’s the jam between the cake. Sour cherry seemed just right because its tartness really offsets the sweetness of the dessert’s other elements. And did I mention that it’s red?
With the flavors set, I turned to assembling the trifle. At first I considered making it look very old fashioned by using whole slices of jelly roll, but it really isn’t my style to create something so twee. Instead, I wanted to give this traditional dessert a new, slightly abstract look. I thought an easy jigsaw-like pattern might do the trick—all it took was cutting the cake slices in half and staggering them as I assembled the trifle in a clear bowl. The result is playful, elegant, and very festive.
I married a man with a Lebanese Catholic background, so now I actually do celebrate Christmas every year. It’s wonderful and different, but in my mind I still hold onto a Dickensian version, albeit its cheerier side: big roasts, plum pudding, and yes, a proper English trifle.