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.

35 thoughts on “Trifling with Thanksgiving

  1. The trifle looks and sounds spectacular.Funny how the world works – you’re missing Thanksgiving and I’d happily opt-out. Last year was my first T-day alone, and I reveled in the peace and quiet and lack of turkey. :)Enjoy the dessert wherever you end up spending the day.

  2. This year, I’m having the smallest thanksgiving ever. Just me, my brother, and my sister-in-law. My daughter and her husband will be here for christmas, but neither they, nor any of my usual Thanksgiving guests are going to be in town this year.Quite different from last year, when, in addition to my usual friend/guests- and my mother was still alive then, too, my cousin was here from England, having her first Thanksgiving ever.I must say, she adapted very quickly to the eating-until-comatose holiday style.I was quite proud of her. And actually, now that I think about it- when I was visiting in England at an Easter dinner, there was a certain amount of groaning, drowsiness, and belt-loosening going on.

  3. Happy Thanksgiving, Melissa! I was curious what you did amongst the Europeans. And while I believe our dessert table in Texas is already overflowing, when I return to New York I can’t wait to make this delicious dessert–no small trifle, indeed!

  4. Mmmm, maybe I’ll forgo the traditional family affair and just stay home with this dessert. It looks delicious! I hope it makes your expat Thanksgiving a happy one.

  5. What a nice idea! I’m in Canada–so officially thanksgiving is celebrated here, but for goodness sakes it’s on a Monday, it’s not the same. And my friends and family-by-marriage here are European so they are even less into it than Canadians. I’m not sure what I’ll do next year, but this year I think I might making a cheesecake… that can ccheer up any day!

  6. What a lovely Autumn dessert! I was planning to make a pumpkin and gingerbread trifle, but I’d never thought about putting fruit in it too. Sounds like a great idea. Don’t feel too badly about Thanksgiving. Take away all the fancy food and it’s just a day set aside to count your blessings. You can do that anytime and anywhere. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I know the Thanksgiving feeling. I actually celebrate Thanksgiving twice a year (I’m Canadian, but my parents are American–two different dates), but I live in Quebec, the one province in Canada that just doesn’t have it. So I’m out of sync with the world around me TWICE every fall.

  8. It’s the combination of family and food, isn’t it? If you have just the family or just the food, it’s not quite Thanksgiving.I’ll be in Italy on business this week, and I’m surprised at how much I’m already missing this holiday. But this trifle is going to happen as soon as I get back!

  9. Hi Melissa, I know what you mean about missing festivities when you are far from home. I am a student in US from India and my heart aches to go back especially during october (when the main festivals are scheduled in my state). I miss all the family get together, the good food associated with it and the weather and flowers.The trifle looks beautiful. I am sure it tastes great too.

  10. Melissa,You should never let circumstances interfere in a holiday. Whether it’s Christmas or Hannaka, your birthday or anniversary, or the 4th of July. Living in a land you didn’t grow up in is an opportunity to expand your holidays, not restrict them. And neither is the number of people around you sharing the event.Over the past 20 years I’ve spent 19 alone and every one has been excellent — except for that time I poked a knife all the way through my right ring finger and spent what seemed like hours driving around the hospital with blood pouring down my hand, despite the towel, looking for the emergency room. That was a bad birthday. I didn’t even feel like cooking when I got home.

  11. I feel for ya. I have a few friends abroad that later in life pay a price tag for living far from home that they didn’t know they’d signed up for.The dessert looks fantastic!

  12. Happy Thanksgiving!I am a new reader to your blog, and a fellow ex pat who realised only recently howmuch she missed this wonderful north american holiday. As you say, the food is important, but it is the traditions & family that go with it, that make all the difference. I made a traditional TG dinner for my fiancรฉ’s Swiss family, and I think I can safely say they are all converted!! Your desert looks wonderful, and I look forward to reading your future posts. Consider yourself bookmarked :)Erika

  13. It must be strange, even now, living around people (like me) who have never celebrated Thanksgiving. It must be a "Come on! Let’s do something!" kind of feeling. Sucks.Lovely Trifles though, those little glasses are great.

  14. Cindy – I remember feeling the same way not too many years ago, but it’s funny how things change, isn’t it? I have to admit I don’t miss turkey one bit, or most other Thanksgiving foods for that matter, but I do miss the collaborative cooking and general festive feeling – and the leftovers! In any case, I hope you manage to have a nice quiet one, without too much turkey… :)Lindy – I know, I shouldn’t say Europeans never overeat on festive occasions, because they certainly do. That said, I’ve never seen quite the kind of excess I’ve seen at many Thanksgivings. I hope you have a wonderful meal with your two co-conspirators – I guess that means more leftovers for all of you!Lisa – Oh, I can only imagine what a Texas-sized feast you’ll have! The closest I’ve ever come was a Thanksgiving in rural Mississippi, but that’s a story for another time. Have a wonderful trip!Kat – You too :)Jennifer – Ha! I wouldn’t give up any family engagements for it, though you might find bringing it along increases your popularity significantly ๐Ÿ™‚ Whatever you’re planning, have a great time!Sasha – Yes, what is up with Canada celebrating on a Monday? I can’t imagine having to drag myself into work the day after Thanksgiving – I’d be still too busy digesting. I mean, Monday would be perfect if that meant you got the rest of the week off too, but somehow I suspect it doesn’t work like that… ๐Ÿ˜‰ Sticky – Yeah, I’d never thought of fruit and pumpkin before either, but considering how many times I’ve crammed both pumpkin and apple pie on my plate at Thanksgiving dinner, this seems like a logical next step, don’t you think? And yes, you’re absolutely right about the counting blessings part – it’s something frighteningly easy to overlook in the face of all that food…MasPinaSarap – Thank you, same to you!Maninas – Thank you, and happy Thanksgiving!Hanne – Oh, but who cares about being out-of-synch when you have TWO Thanksgivings to enjoy every year? Sounds alright to me! :)Juti – Exactly! As much as you might try to replicate it on foreign soil, without family around it just doesn’t feel right. How sad that you’ll miss it this year – even though Italy isn’t a bad consolation prize by any stretch. In any case, I hope the trifle helps bring you a bit of belated holiday cheer when you get back. :)Spee – I hear you – the holidays have always been the hardest time of the year for me to live so far from home. I hope you’ll have the chance to go back to India soon!Kevin – Yikes. That puts my Thanksgiving moping into perspective – at least I (fingers crossed) won’t spend it in the emergency room!Kevin – I’ve come to realize there are always going to be bonuses and drawbacks to living abroad. At the moment missing the holidays is not strong enough to lure me home, but in the future, who knows?Erin – Welcome, and thank you!Flo – Mm, I know, whodathunk? Happy Thanksgiving!Erika – It must be one of those unwritten rules of American-expat life – you start to appreciate Thanksgiving only when you can’t celebrate it anymore. In any case, good for you for bringing it to the Swiss! Although if you ask me, I’d take a nice bubbling pot of cheese fondue over overcooked turkey any day… ;)Graeme – I’m pretty used to it by now, actually. What’s harder is lamenting to my husband and having him respond "what was Thanksgiving about again?" I hope, for his sake, he was joking…

  15. All I know is that I keep coming back to the picture of the Autumn Trifle. I think I now get it when they say food-porn. Too involved for this newish cook to make but…I can dream…

  16. Lovely looking trifle. I thought of making a berry trifle during summer but somehow nevet got around it. An autumn trifle sounds very good too though!

  17. Funny that you should mention FONDU as we just had a wonderful one last night with my fiancรฉ’s family. They had a friend bring the cheese in from a small producer in Charmey (central Switzerland). I think I will do a post on this topic as there are some unspoken Swiss rules about making fondu which are interesting to know!!Speak soon Erika

  18. Thank you so much for this heartfelt entry and receipe. I am spending my first Thanksgiving out of the country. I have had some unconventional ones in my life – a South Asian Thanksgiving and a Korean Thanksgiving topping the list – you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to eat Turkey with chopsticks. But this year I am in Germany with my boyfriend and his very not-American family. I had thought, like you Melissa, that it wouldn’t bother me, but I have spent most of the day feeling very homesick and craving the smell of cinnamon and spice and looking around every corner for a golden brown Turkey or fall-leaf centerpiece. That said – I don’t think Thanksgiving would work so well here, because most European ovens could NEVER accomodate an American turkey. And potatoes. And Yams. And pies. I am envisioning a crew trying to wrest trapped pultry from a teeny tiny over. No dice. I am a home baker, but I am not an experienced Metric baker. Most of my attempts so far have not met with great success. So tommorrow I am going to try to make a very simple Tarte Tatin to try and chase my Thanksgiving-less blues away.Thanks again for the post that shows me that I am not alone in buturing my tiny little bit of crazy!

  19. I know the feeling. This is my second year here in London for Thanksgiving. I had a ready-meal for dinner tonight. I always call all my friends and family, though…the next best thing, I guess. It is a little weird still. But when I hear what they are all eating compared to what I am, I pisses me off a little! They also keep asking if we celebrate it here and I have to keep explaining that it’s sort of an anti-British holiday, lol, being that the pilgrims were basically trying to get the hell outta here. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m more of a Christmas girl, anyway. I’m going home in two weeks and I can’t wait. Also, the Martha Stewart Christmas issue just arrived at Borders on Charing Cross Road. So I’m generally pretty happy! I hope you have some holiday haggis or pakora and enjoy Thanksgiving there! They can’t have that in the States!

  20. Let me begin by saying Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Now, for my first Thanksgiving in Italy, it was no big deal to do without it. For the next two, I was horribly depressed. Last year I asked my mom to ship some things I wouldn’t find here (cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes) and made a huge dinner just for me and my Italian OH. Of course he didn’t even try a lot of it, but what did I care? I had my chicken (long story why), gravy, my mom’s stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, corn, peas…the first time I had ever made a Turkey Day feast and it was *so* worth it.We’ll be having our second Thanksgiving dinner together on Sunday :)The trifle looks so good!

  21. I wish I hadn’t waited until now to look at this post. I suppose I could halve it. Couldn’t I?I think all I’d miss from Thanksgiving would be the family and pie. I’m not a fan of turkey.

  22. Melissa, this is crave-worthy — the sort of thing I’d expect to find on the most glamorous chic restaurant menu during the fall. I’m very tempted to give this one a whirl, although I still have espresso-maple pecan pie from Thanksgiving, a tart shell in the freezer for the pumpkin-sour cream tart I never baked, and the promise to G of another apple pie, since he can’t quite get over how much he loved Thursday’s…maybe I’ll get to this by Christmas.

  23. of all the fall food photos i’ve seen this month, this is by far my favorite. warm, rich colors, sweet yet nutty/savory. clean lines and just so inviting.though perhaps the photo is missing my little kid’s hands swiping the creme on top.

  24. Wow, beautiful, delicious, and sinful! I wish I had this recipe before I opted to make desert for my mates during T-day. Still thank you for sharing.

  25. Mrs. L – For heaven’s sake, there is no need to dream! Really, it’s so easy – there’s a reason they call insignificant things ‘trifles’. :)Talia – You know, I never thought about the oven-capacity problem, but I think you’re probably right. OUR oven certainly couldn’t contain an entire turkey – it barely fits a chicken! Ah well, I hope your T-day cheered up in the end, and that your tatin came out perfectly. Let me know if I can help you with any metric baking questions.Krista – Hmm, anti-British, I’ve never thought of it that way but it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Maybe that explains why nobody’s in any hurry to start celebrating it here!Sognatrice – That sounds wonderful! The only problem I have with doing it that way is that if I’m going to celebrate Thanksgiving, I NEED to make pies. And not just one, or even two, but *lots*. And, well, I’m not very good at giving stuff away after the fact, so you do the math…Mar – Of course you could halve it. Why not? And ditto on the family and pie – that about sums it up for me!Julie – Tell you what: you send me all your leftover pie, and then you’ll have the excuse you need to make a trifle. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind at all – the holidays are for helping those in need, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Jaden – Thank you! And isn’t that funny – this is the one picture I managed to get that doesn’t have my husband’s hand swiping some cream… ;)Miss Shoo – There’s still, by my calculations, more than three weeks of autumn left – in other words, plenty of time!

  26. Damn, and just when I was about to give in and give away my trifle cups…These look stunning, exactly the sort of dessert one would crave in the cooling weather.

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