Saturday, December 27, 2008


Today we are eating leftover trifle. We didn’t really need to make trifle at all, given the large number of sweet things that were already here. But Christmas is the only time when we ever have trifle. So I made it anyway. Trifle is layered, like my life. It is something I make with my heart.
It is impossible for me to make trifle without remembering Granny Cookson. So far as I can recollect, my trifle is fairly similar to hers. Granny always made trifle at Christmas. In those days I ate it happily without stopping to consider its ingredients. In fact, I thought all trifle was Granny’s trifle until I met David and heard that his idea of trifle was a layered dessert containing Jell-O.
“Jell-O!” exclaimed my mother, when I told her what I had discovered. “Granny’s trifle doesn’t have Jell-O in it.” And that was only the beginning of my trifle education. One year I proudly carried a trifle to the Mill Woods United Church Choir Christmas potluck party. My trifle was Granny’s trifle. I was the first to arrive. There followed in my footsteps six other choir members bearing six bowls of trifle. Each of them was different from all the others. Each of them was made with layers of cake and other things, but none of them was granny’s trifle.
To eat a dish of Granny’s trifle is to taste all my childhood Christmases, to be once again warmed in the holiday good nature of my father’s family. Christmas was at granny’s house. We ate the meal and washed the dishes. We played board games and snickered at the men snoring in the living room. We played hide-and-seek in Granny’s closets, and listened to the Queen’s Christmas address. Then we ate a late-night snack and I cried because we had to go home. Christmas was the day that should have lasted forever.
Mom’s family did not gather at Christmas. So even though Granny was not my mom’s mother, it seemed natural that Mom should take up the cause of recreating Granny’s trifle when Granny stopped hosting large Christmas dinners. David and I would arrive at Mom’s a day early to help prepare the feast. The trifle would already be in progress. Mom would have the cake made and the raspberries thawing. We would make the custard, toast the nuts and whip the cream. To make a bowl of Granny’s trifle is to stand in Mom’s kitchen, stirring the custard and talking to Mom. "Don't leave yet," she'd say on Boxing day. "We haven't finished the trifle."
Nowadays, the job of trifle making has fallen to David and me. David’s family was never much committed to the Jell-O layered dessert, so Granny’s trifle it is. No matter that its assembly creates a pile of dishes. The process begins in warmest August. First we eat the ripening raspberries hot off the bushes, then we bring them in for breakfast. Finally, when there are too many for breakfast, we freeze the first bag. “That’s the trifle,” I say. After that I forget all about Christmas and go back to appreciating summer.
A few days before Christmas is the time to think about the cake. Will it be half an Angel Food, or a yellow cake mix, or a recipe for jellyroll? Usually it’s the recipe for jellyroll. I bake it, tear it into little pieces and place a layer in the bottom of the straight-sided berry bowl I got as a wedding gift. (It came with six little bowls, but they didn’t fit well in the dishwasher, so the ones that have survived now serve the dog his daily meal.)
On Christmas Eve morning it’s time to thaw the raspberries. Two cups of berries go nicely atop the cake in the berry bowl. Then, if you are only making one bowl, which is something we rarely have the good sense to do, you make one recipe of custard using the directions on the can of Byrd’s Custard Powder. The hardest part of the operation is waiting for the custard to cool before you pour it over the berries. I don’t know precisely why you have to wait for it to cool. Mom said so and she’s gone, so I can’t ask her. I suspect that if you poured it hot it might cook the berries and soak right into the cake instead of hovering above the berries in a tasteful layer. While you wait you can pass some time toasting a few slivered almonds to sprinkle after you pour the custard.
Some people might add a layer of whipped cream, but we don’t. Instead, we always whip the cream during a very chaotic time on Christmas morning and keep it in a separate bowl. I don’t know why we do it this way. That’s how Mom did it. Some day we might serve trifle to somebody who doesn’t want to eat it with sweetened whipped cream and that person will definitely be grateful.
While we clear the turkey from the table we start begging people to eat the trifle. “Please eat it so we won’t have so much left over!” Then we force them to work up a new appetite playing games before serving trifle again. Eventually we have to let them go home, leaving us with the leftover trifle. Then we try to appreciate it for as many days as it takes to finish. After all, we won’t make it again for at least another year.

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