Tomorrow is the 4th of July, Independence Day, and the high point of the year for sparklers, corn on the cob, and blueberry-strawberry desserts. Whatever would we do without blueberries and strawberries on July 4th? How else would we make our flag cakes and patriotic fruit pinwheels? But as I thought about what dessert to bring you today, I was inspired by the fact that red and blue fruits extend beyond our ubiquitous berry friends. And on the 4th of July I want to enjoy ripe summer fruit as much as possible.
So here is a trifle for your holiday that is really more fruit than cake, with cherries and raspberries and blackberries squeezed between homemade pudding and cream, meant to be eaten outside in the sunshine, before dips in the pool and runs through the sprinkler.
Trifles bely their name; they're the very opposite of an insignificant dessert. A trifle is meant to be bountiful and generous, able to feed an army of picnickers. This one is no different; I really don't believe in tiny trifles.
Trifles should also take some time. Yes, you can slap leftover cake and cream and fruit together in a big delicious pile, but a true trifle (in my humble opinion) should involve homemade custard and a slow, methodical building of the layers. It's going to feed a lot of people, after all, so a little extra time spent in assembly will pay off. It also makes for a more beautiful trifle; if you want discrete layers it's best to let at least the bottom layer set for an hour or two in the refrigerator before piling on the rest of the goodies.
This trifle has all the things that I, in my own opinionated way, consider best in this dessert. I use angel food cake, which is light and soft in the pudding. It is more delicate though, so this trifle should be assembled no more than 24 hours before serving (otherwise it gets too soggy for my taste). It also has homemade custard, adapted from my book Bakeless Sweets (which also has quite a few trifles). It's not a very sweet pudding, and it's enriched with a little extra cornstarch to help it hold up the layers. In fact, this whole trifle is not very sweet, despite its richness. Most of its tart sweetness comes from the berries.
Speaking of which, I love a generous helping of fruit in a summer trifle. This one has heaps. I was inspired by Heidi Swanson's Red Fruit Salad, which puts strawberries and cherries together in one beautiful, simple salad. Here I add raspberries too, and the blueberries are rounded out with juicy blackberries. It's a party of summer fruit, tumbled decorously with cake, custard, and cream.
It's a dessert meant to be shared wholeheartedly, and since I can't think of anything more patriotic than the act of sharing with one another, it's my July 4th dessert pick. The sparklers are optional, but highly recommended!
Red, White, and Blue Trifle
Pack half of the angel food cake into the bottom of a large glass bowl. The bowl should hold 20 to 24 cups (160 to 192 fluid ounces). Prepare the vanilla pudding. Immediately pour half of the warm pudding over the cake. Press plastic wrap or buttered wax paper onto the surface and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until chilled.
Pour the remaining pudding into a shallow dish and press plastic wrap or buttered wax paper onto its surface. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until firm enough to be spooned out of the dish.
While the first layer of trifle and the pudding are chilling, prepare the fruit.
For the red fruit: Hull and quarter 1 pound of the strawberries and mix with the cherries and raspberries. Refrigerate. Reserve remaining strawberries for topping the trifle.
For the blue fruit: Lightly mash 2 cups of the blueberries just until they release their juices. Stir in 2 more cups of blueberries and the blackberries. Refrigerate. Reserve remaining blueberries for topping the trifle.
Whip the cream cheese with beaters or in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually add the cream, whipping until smooth, and continue whipping until it forms soft peaks. Whip in the powdered sugar and lemon zest.
To finish assembling the trifle, drain off any juices that have collected in the bottom of the fruit bowls. Remove the plastic wrap from the trifle and spread the red fruit over the base layer of cake and pudding. Top gently with the whipped cream, then with the remaining cake cubes.
Whip the remaining vanilla pudding until creamy, and spread over the cake cubes. Top with the blue fruit mixture, then with a final layer of the whipped cream.
To finish the trifle, hull and slice the remaining 16 ounces strawberries. Arrange the remaining strawberries and blueberries on top of the trifle. Refrigerate uncovered for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours before serving.
Whisk the cornstarch and salt together in a 1-quart mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in the cream, making sure there are no lumps. Whisk in the egg yolks. It is important that this mix be very smooth.
Warm the milk with the sugar over medium heat in a 3-quart saucepan until bubbles form around the edge of the milk and the entire surface of the milk begins to vibrate. Turn off the heat.
Pour 1 cup of the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the cornstarch and egg yolks. Whisk vigorously to combine. They should come together smoothly, with no lumps. If you see any lumps, add a little more liquid and whisk them out. Pour the combined mixture back into the pot slowly, whisking constantly. Turn the heat back on to medium and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. The custard will come to a boil with large bubbles that slowly pop up to the surface. Boil, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Stir in the vanilla extract.
If not using for trifle, pour the pudding into a shallow container, like a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. (If using for the trifle, follow trifle instructions above at this point.) Press plastic wrap or buttered wax paper onto the surface of the pudding. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until firm enough to be spooned out of the bowl.
Store for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Before serving, whip the chilled pudding with a large whisk or in the bowl of a stand mixer for about 60 seconds to make it creamy and light.
(Images: Faith Durand)