Trifling with Thanksgiving

Autumn Trifle with Spice-Roasted Apples, Pears, and Pumpkin-Caramel Sauce

I’ll be honest – November is not my favorite month. That may not come as much of a surprise to you, but perhaps the reason will: it’s not because of the painfully short days or the bone-chilling temperatures, or even the pre-Christmas what-on-earth-am-I-going-to- give-people-this-year agony. It’s because of Thanksgiving, pure and simple, and the sad realization that once again, I am not taking part.

As someone who has lived the expat life for close to a decade now, I thought I was used to it. In fact, the first few years I lived on foreign soil the fact of being away from home for Thanksgiving didn’t bother me at all. Only one end-of-year holiday to pay penance for at the gym! No need to choke down turkey just to be polite! One less occasion for family conflicts! Instead I channeled my holiday food enthusiasm into Christmas, which apart from the presents and carols and inescapable mass commercialization seemed a perfectly fine substitute.

But as the years went by, a strange ache started to grow in my chest as the winter closed in. However happy I might be with my non-American life the rest of the year, as soon as November arrived I would start suffering intense bouts of homesickness, and all I could think about was that unlike the rest of my countrymen I didn’t have travel plans to finalize, time off work to anticipate and a big feast to plan at the end of the month. I tried to quell my melancholy by attending the annual Thanksgiving dinner thrown by my American departmental colleagues, but nothing about it was right; there were no big bear hugs from long-lost relatives, no good-natured arguments lasting half the night, and far too much shop talk. And the food – well, let’s just say that collective nostalgia does not for superlative eating make. After giving up on those I tried halfheartedly to organize my own dinner one year, but the fact that I don’t actually have any American friends (or an American husband, for that matter) proved to be more of an obstacle than I’d imagined. Of course it was no problem to lure people over for dinner, but since Europeans don’t seem to understand the whole eat-until-you’re-comatose premise, the dinner resembled a civilized dinner party with a vague Thanksgiving theme more than a proper holiday blowout (and I suppose the fact that I eschew most traditional Thanksgiving foods probably didn’t help either). So I pretty much gave up, resigning myself to Thanksgivings enjoyed vicariously through food blogs and telephone calls and dreaming of the far-off November day I’ll be able to celebrate the whole affair properly again.

Before you start to feel too sorry for me, though, and assume I spend Thanksgiving noshing on carrot sticks and oatmeal, I should tell you about the one concession I make which helps me feel I’m celebrating at least a little. Each year, no matter what else we’re eating or who we’re eating with, I make one gigantic, indulgent and totally over-the-top Thanksgiving dessert which we gorge ourselves silly on for several nights in a row. It’s very often pie, sometimes cheesecake, or if I’m feeling really homey, just a giant crisp. This year, however, it’s that most English of desserts, the trifle, though a version which has swapped the traditional sherry and raspberries for a powerful hit of autumn.

This trifle, in fact, is everything you could want in a Thanksgiving dessert, and more. It has pumpkin, apples, and pears; warm spices, toasted nuts, caramel and bourbon; creamy parts, crunchy parts, boozy parts and sweet-sour-spicy parts. It’s suitably over-the-top and outrageously decadent, which, let’s be honest, is really the point of the whole thing, isn’t it? The only thing it’s missing is a family, preferably mine, to spring from its billowy folds, laughing and arguing and bearing the rest of a deliciously epic, waist-stretching feast.

Oh well, at least it comes with considerably less gym time as a result. And for that, I’m certainly thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Autumn Trifle with Spice-Roasted Apples, Pears, and Pumpkin-Caramel Sauce

The truth is I’ve never really been one of those less-is-more kind of people. And definitely when it comes to the sanctioned excesses of Thanksgiving, more is definitely more, something this trifle delivers in spades. It is admittedly a bit time-consuming with all its various components, so if you’ve got a lot on your plate (how’s that for a pun!) I’d either start several days ahead or else just bring it along to an event you’re not hosting (or if you are hosting, convince one of your guests to make it…;). Once everything is prepared, though, assembly is a snap and it can sit for up to a day before its last-minute gilding of cream, caramel and nuts. And for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, just don’t forget to save room! p.s. The bourbon can easily be left out if you’re going to be serving alcohol-phobic people or small children; likewise if you can’t or won’t buy bourbon, a mid-range brandy makes a perfectly acceptable stand-in. Or why not just throw all caution to the wind and experiment with your favorite booze?
Source: Inspired by Bon Appétit, November 2003
Serves: 10-12

Vanilla-Bourbon Custard
1/4 cup (32g) cornstarch
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
1 cup (250ml) whipping cream
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons bourbon, or to taste

Pumpkin-Caramel Sauce
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
1 cup (250ml) whipping cream
1/2 cup (125ml) canned pure pumpkin
generous pinch salt

Spice-Roasted Fruit
4 large tart apples (something good for baking, e.g. granny smith), peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 large firm pears (preferably Bosc), peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup (70g) sugar
3-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in small pieces

about 16oz. (450g) store-bought sponge or poundcake, cut into 1-inch (2.5cm) cubes
20 gingersnaps or other crisp, spicy cookies
6 tablespoons bourbon, or to taste

2 cups (500ml) cold whipping cream
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon, or to taste
1 cup (100g) sliced or slivered almonds, lightly toasted

For custard:
Whisk the cornstarch and 1/2 cup (125ml) milk together in a medium bowl. Add the sugar, egg yolks, and salt. Whisk until the sugar dissolves. Bring the remaining milk and the cream to a simmer in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Gradually whisk 1/2 cup hot milk into the yolk mixture until well blended. Gradually whisk the yolk mixture back into the saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, until custard thickens and comes to a boil, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking for about 30 seconds more, then pour into a clean bowl. Stir in the vanilla extract and bourbon. Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard to keep it from forming a skin. Chill until cold, about 2
hours. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.)

For pumpkin caramel:
Melt the butter in a heavy small saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and cook until the mixture is deep amber, stirring constantly, about 8 minutes (mixture will be grainy). Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the cream (be careful – the mixture will bubble and steam). Stir until the caramel bits dissolve and the mixture is smooth, about 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin and salt to taste; stir until blended. Refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

For roasted fruit:
Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C. Toss the apples and pears with the sugar, lemon juice and spices in a large bowl. Grease a large rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan (or line with non-stick foil, my new best friend), and spread the fruit out in a shallow layer. Dot with the butter and roast until the fruit is soft, golden and most of the liquid has evaporated, turning with a spatula every 15 minutes, about 45 minutes total (keep a close eye on it toward the end so it doesn’t burn). Cool the fruit on the sheet.

To assemble:
Line the bottom of a large (2-3 quart/liter) bowl or trifle dish with cake cubes, forming a more or less even layer*. Crumble half the gingersnaps over the cake. Drizzle over half the bourbon. Spoon half of the custard into the dish; smooth the top. Cover with half the fruit. Drizzle 1/2 cup (125ml) caramel sauce over. Cover fruit with another even layer of cake cubes (you may not end up using all the cake). Crumble remaining gingersnaps on top. Drizzle with remaining bourbon. Spoon remaining custard over. Cover with remaining fruit. Drizzle with another 1/2 cup caramel sauce (reserve the remainder). Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 6 hours. (Up to this point it can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.)
*You can, of course, also make individual trifles using wine or cocktail glasses like you see in the photo above. Just divide the mixture evenly between 10-12 glasses.

To finish:
Whip cream, sugar, vanilla and bourbon in a chilled bowl until the mixture holds soft peaks. Spoon the whipped cream over the top of the trifle, swirling decoratively. (Up to this point it can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Keep chilled.) Just before serving, drizzle the whipped cream with a little more of the reserved caramel sauce and sprinkle with the toasted almonds. Serve immediately, though a couple hours sitting at room temperature won’t do it much harm.