All photos/art by Matt Kalinowski
Shelley Osborne is sitting at the kitchen table in her well-appointed loft in a refashioned brick mill beside the Nubanusit River in West Peterborough, New Hampshire. On her shelves are small groups of English china, teapots, creamers, willowware and yellowware, treasures collected from chapters of her eclectic life.
“Growing up, I lived in England, and I married an Englishman,” she says. “His mother, Dora, was a wonderful cook. She used to make trifle a lot.” In addition, Shelley’s father was an officer in the U.S. Navy, commander of an American air base in Surrey. “We lived well,” she adds, “gave big parties, did a lot of entertaining.” Trifle always figured into that lifestyle, and she brought it with her into her new, more casual life in the States.
“The thing about the trifle is that it’s not that hard to make, but it’s showy and fun for a holiday or for special occasions,” Shelley says. Today, she’s going to show me how to make this treat. She starts with a single cake layer. “The English use stale cake soaked in liquor; they call it ‘tipsy cake’ for that reason,” she adds. “Everyone modifies trifle to her own taste.” Her custard is adapted from Julia Child’s crème pâtissière (pastry cream). “I cut way back on the sugar,” she says. And she uses something called “vanilla sugar,” easy to make: a good-size vanilla bean immersed in quart jar of sugar.
Over high heat, she beats the custard vigorously with a heavy whisk, to keep the bottom from scorching. When the custard is right, she lets it cool, off the stove. With a sharp knife, she slices the single-layer cake in half through the middle. She spreads the bottom half with jam. “I like a tart jam, not too sweet,” Shelley says. “Any kind of berry jam is good.” Then she places the top of the cake back onto the bottom layer: “It’s kind of a jam sandwich.” She cuts the cake again, lengthwise and widthwise, to make squares. Now she’s ready to build the trifle.
First, Shelley places a ladle of cooled custard into the bottom of a glass trifle dish. Cake squares go on the bottom, around the outside so that the stripes of jam show through the glass. Then she fills in the middle for the first layer, pours more custard over that, adds another layer of cake, and ends with the last of the custard and a layer of whipped cream. You might add layers of berries and cherries as well. Today, Shelley garnishes her trifle with raspberries, toasted slivered almonds, mint leaves, and crystallized violets. (She brings home the violets from Laduree, a boutique in Paris, whenever she visits the City of Light; there’s a branch in New York, too.)
The word trifle derives from Old French and has come to mean “something of little consequence.” Perhaps–but this creation seems impressively consequential. When Shelley brought her trifle to my annual Christmas brunch, 20 people quickly scraped the bottom of the footed glass–and talked about it for days.