My family has a decades-old tradition of baking a three-dimensional lamb-shaped cake for Easter. It started when I was a kid and has become a tradition that I've enjoyed with my own children. We'd hold our breath each time we unmolded the three-dimensional cake, praying that he'd come out of the pan in one piece, then decorate him with coconut, jelly beans and spring flowers. However, over the past two years, for a myriad of reasons, the poor lamb cake has been forgotten. He's been baked, swaddled tightly in plastic and frozen the week leading up to the holiday. (I've learned that the best way to keep the poor lamb intact is to frost him while still frozen hard.) I've fully intended to finish and serve the cake, but somehow in all the pre-holiday fuss he's twice now been forgotten.
Late in the afternoon on this most recent Easter Sunday, my eldest shot up from her chocolate-induced stupor and exclaimed, "We forgot the lamby cake, again!"
"I thought about it yesterday evening," I replied, "but it was too late to start on it after we finished dying eggs so I figured we'll just use it to make a trifle for Mother's Day like we did last year."
"Oh yeah! That's OK. Trifle is yummier than the cake anyway."
Indeed, a trifle is one of the most supremely delicious and adaptable desserts you can make. A traditional British confection featuring whisky-soaked cake, creamy custard and juicy berries, trifles are as easy to make as they are stunning to behold. And while it can be an excellent way to show off your tender homemade pound cake and flawless custard sauce, you can also take any multitude of shortcuts or make adaptations as you see fit. Store-bought cake or cookies will work well, and if you don't want to turn on the stove you can substitute jam for the rhubarb filling. Pudding mix can stand in for the custard sauce, or you can just skip the custard entirely and use sweetened whipped cream. Any kind of berries work well, in addition to honeyed peaches or roasted apples.
For the filling:
4 cups diced rhubarb
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
For the custard:
3 cups cold whole milk
½ cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
6 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1 tablespoon brandy or Grand Marnier, optional
1 tablespoon butter
4 cups cubed pound cake (shortbread cookies or vanilla wafers work also)
4 cups sliced strawberries
1 cup cold whipping cream
Brandy or Grand Marnier for sprinkling cake, optional
Combine the rhubarb, sugar and water in a nonreactive saucepan over medium high heat. Cook, stirring frequently until the mixture comes to a boil, then reduce heat and continue to cook for 5-10 minutes more until the rhubarb has softened and the mixture is thick. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.
Meanwhile, combine the cold milk, sugar and cornstarch in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. Continue to cook for two minutes until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about two minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk a small amount of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks to temper, whisking vigorously so as to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Pour the egg yolk mixture into the pan with the milk mixture and return it to the stove. Stirring continuously, bring the egg-milk mixture up to a gentle simmer over medium heat and cook for an additional two minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the vanilla, liquor if using, and butter. Cool completely. This can be done by refrigerating overnight (allow to come to room temperature before placing in the fridge) or by placing the bowl of custard into a large bowl filled with ice water. Stir the custard frequently until cool to the touch. This rapid-cooling method can also be used with the rhubarb mixture above.
When ready to assemble the trifle, combine the sliced strawberries and cooled rhubarb mixture, stirring gently to combine. In a mixer or by hand, whip the cream to soft peaks.
Place a layer of cake cubes in a three-quart glass trifle or souffle dish. Sprinkle with liquor, if using, then spread half of the strawberry-rhubarb mixture over the cake cubes, followed by half of the custard and half of the whipped cream. Gently rap the dish on the counter to expel any air bubbles, then repeat the layers. Decorate as desired with fresh berries, and chill until ready to serve.