At once blowsily moreish and decadently raffiné–like a freshly unmade bed at Claridge’s–trifle is the quintessenstial English dessert of summer. While summer pudding and Eton mess may come close, they don’t quite hold a candle to the trifle’s layers of boozy cake, soft fruit, rich custard, and whipped cream.

And when it’s presented in the traditional tall glass serving bowl, few desserts can command the attention of a trifle. Perfect for special summery parties closer to home… with all the cream and custardy goodness, trifle doesn’t travel all that well, so keep it it mind for those celebrations that don’t involve much movement from the grill or patio.

Of course, being me, I’ve made several fairly sacrilegious alterations to the basic English original. As with most American adaptations, I used pound cake, which is richer than the fairly lean sponge cake or savoiardi (ladyfingers) Mr. T says are de rigeur in the UK. I generally don’t have sherry on hand, so I sneak in a bit of port instead. And, while I was at it, I took advantage of the seasonally harmonious harvest of strawberries and rhubarb to get a bit more fruit in there as well.

As is usual, Mr. T just shook his head when I started arranging the strawberries with crazed precision around the sides of the bowl. But frankly, if I am going to make custard from scratch (which also merited an eye roll, but I am NOT going to use something from a tin, even if it is authentic), it’s going to be pretty too, dammit. Of course, it’s delicious too, and that’s really what matters.

To serve and show off this or any trifle to its best effect, you really should use a dish at least resembling a traditional trifle bowl–fairly narrow in diameter and rather tall with straightish sides. Footed, if at all possible. Mine is about 8″ in diameter and 5″ deep. Keep that in mind when rummaging around for a vessel in which to serve yours.

The addition of crème fraîche to the whipped cream comes by way of arch-baker and chef Nancy Silverton. It adds a lovely tang to the cream and helps stabilize it too, quite the boon particularly for warm-weather applications like this trifle. Crème fraîche is practically indesctructible and just really wonderful. I promise you’ll come up with enough uses for it to finish off a little tub before it goes bad on you.

Summer Strawberry-Rhubarb Trifle
Yield: 10-12 servings

1 1lb pound cake
1/4 c sherry or port
1/2 c rhubarb compote, divided; or 1/4 c tart berry jam

2 1/2 c heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean (optional)
7 egg yolks (from “large” eggs)
scant 1/2 c sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 qts fresh strawberries (a bit more if not using the compote)
1 1/4 c heavy cream
1 tbs crème fraîche (optional)
1/4 c sliced almonds
1 tsp vanilla

Cut the poundcake into 1/2″ slices and set out on a rack to dry out a bit while you get on with the custard and fruit.

(If making the compote, do so now if you’ve not already–it’s super quick and really quite worth it.)

For the custard, split the optional vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into a small (~2-3qt) saucepan. Add 2 1/2 c cream and the scraped vanilla bean pod. Scald (heat till almost boiling–steam and small bubbles will form on the perimeter of the pan) the cream, turn off the heat and let steep for 5 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks, sugar, salt, and cornstarch in a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisking with authority to combine smoothly–no lumps!

Bring the cream back up to nearly boiling and, whisking the egg mixture madly all the while, slowly stream the hot cream into the bowl. Pick out the spent vanilla pod. Once combined, return the mixture to the saucepan, making sure that all the lovely vanilla seeds make it back into the pot. Heat over low to medium-low heat till thickened (170°F) about six to ten minutes. Stir constantly with a silicone spatula–making sure to get into the edges of the pan to prevent curdling or sticking. The mixture should not boil, and if it starts to steam, pull the pan from the heat, continue stirring, and lower the heat a bit before returning the pot to the stove.

Once thickened, pass the custard through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean (preferably metal) bowl. Stir in the vanilla extract. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the custard, and refrigerate till well-chilled and set, 2-3 hours.

Turning our attention back to the cake, dribble the slices with half the liquor you’ve elected to use (a choice generally governed by what I have in my cupboard at the moment), flip the slices, and dribble over the rest of the liquor. Spread each slice with a bit of the rhubarb compote (you’ll have some leftover) or tart jam (use it all).

On to the berries. Wash, dry, and hull the strawberries-saving one whole, perfect berry with its green top still on for garnish. Sort by size and halve the smaller ones to line the outside of the trifle dish; you’ll need enough to go around twice so be sure you have a few more than you think you need. The remaining (bigger) berries can be quartered and tossed with the remaining rhubarb compote.

To assemble, put a metal bowl and beaters (whisk attachment if using a stand mixer) in the refrigerator to chill.

Place a layer of cake slices in the bottom of the trifle bowl–using a bit less than half of the cake if your dish has only slightly flared sides. Set a ring of halved strawberries cut-side out around the perimeter of the dish. Spoon over half of the reserved compote and quatered strawberries. Spoon/pour over half of the cooled custard, getting it in between the upright berries on the perimeter of the dish (’cause it’s pretty). Repeat with remaining cake, berries–again making a ring of berries, cut-side out against the glass and custard.

Pour the remaining heavy cream into the chilled bowl and beat till very soft peaks form. Add the crème fraîche if using and continue to beat till the cream holds a medium-firm peak. Spread whipped cream evenly over the custard and sprinkle with almonds and top with that one perfect strawberry.

Cover with plastic wrap and chill for an hour or so to encourage everything to sploosh together deliciously. Trifle should be served chilled within a few hours of assembly.

Notes & Variations
Obviously any juicy berry or soft summer fruit would also do wonderfully here. In particular, subbing in blackberries for the strawberries and a lemon curd lightened (ahem, “lightened”) with whipped cream instead of the vanilla custard and whipped cream is quite delightful indeed.