Holiday sweets are all about excess. Think colored sugar on top of already sweet sugar cookies, thick buttercreams frosting buche de noels, rich egg nog … there’s nothing light about Christmas. And while I’m a huge fan of dessert in most incarnations, I appreciate the less sweet side of things, especially on a day when sugar is consumed with jaw-dropping rapidity.
For as long as I can remember, we’ve had trifles on Christmas. The layered dessert always makes for excellent presentation, and because the different components can be made in advance and then assembled a few hours before guests arrive, it was always a convenient option for our family’s yearly Christmas dinner.
My mom usually went the semi-homemade route, as she had you know, an entire meal for 30 to take care of. Boxed yellow cake mix formed the base, instant vanilla pudding the custard, the fruit layer consisted of fruit cups and Cool Whip formed the whipped cream topping. It was delicious, and disappeared every time.
But this year, she handed over dessert duty to my sister and I. Along with the sugar cookies (and my favorite cookie ever, the recipe to come soon!), I made this dark chocolate raspberry trifle. While I understand the appeal of semi-homemade for a busy cook, I decided my version had to be totally homemade. The recipe, which is more like a collection of recipes for the different components, is extremely manageable if you plan ahead — the cake, pudding and whipped cream can all be made at least a day in advance, and the trifle should be assembled at least four hours before serving, so that everything has time to meld together.
And the results are show-stopping. It’s a grown-up trifle, slightly sweet from the milk chocolate pudding and the barely sweetened whipped cream, tart from the raspberries, subtly rich from the moist dark chocolate cake. It’s light on sugar, with less than 2 cups in the entire shebang. You could make it more grown-up by dousing the cake with Chambord or another type of raspberry liquer, but since we had small children at our party, I skipped this and didn’t miss the booze one bit. Now that‘s saying something.
Dark Chocolate Raspberry Trifle
For the chocolate cake (recipe from Bon Appetit):
Other than making this a one-bowl affair, I followed this recipe more or less exactly, using a 9-x-13 pan instead of a jelly roll pan. There’s some leftover cake, but I’d rather eat moist, almost pudding-like cake for breakfast than whip out a calculator and convert this recipe to another size pan.
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup strong brewed coffee
- 3/4 cup buttermilk (I forgot to buy buttermilk, so instead I put 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in a measuring cup, filled it to the 1-cup mark with whole milk and let it sit for 10 minutes)
- 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1) In a large bowl, sift together the first 6 ingredients. Add the coffee, buttermilk, eggs, oil and vanilla and mix until just combined.
2) Transfer the batter to a parchment-lined baking pan (I did not do this, as evidenced by the above picture). Bake at 325˚F for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Note: You can remove the cake from the pan when it is warm, which will allow you to produce much neater cake slices for the trifle. I didn’t do this so my pieces were a little messy. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, since the cake gets smushed together when you assemble the trifle.
For the milk chocolate pudding (recipe from Gourmet):
Traditionally trifles include an egg custard, but I didn’t want to bother with tempering eggs so I found this recipe for a milk and cornstarch pudding. It was beyond easy and so delicious — I’ve already made three batches. It’s my new go-to recipe for an easy weeknight dessert. Best part? It tastes just as good warm, partially chilled and cold, so you don’t even necessarily have to hold out on the 2-hour fridge time.
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- a pinch of salt
- 1-1/2 cups whole milk*
- 1/2 cup heavy cream*
- 4 ounces good-quality milk chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli chips)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
*I made this with all whole milk and thought that it was just as good as the heavy cream version, though I have yet to try 2% or skim milk.
1) Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder and salt in a large saucepan. Gradually whisk in milk and cream (if using). Bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking constantly. Boil until mixture thickens, about 2 minutes — it will get thick very quickly.
2) Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate and vanilla quickly. Continue whisking until smooth.
3) Transfer to a bowl and chill, placing a piece of plastic wrap directly on the pudding to prevent a skin from forming (unless you like pudding skin, then just wrap the bowl itself). Chill until cold, at least 2 hours.
For the whipped cream:
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon sugar
1) Chill a large metal bowl and the beaters from an electric mixer in the freezer for 20 minutes.
2) Pour the whipping cream, vanilla and salt in the cold bowl and mix on high speed until firm peaks form.
To assemble the trifle:
- 12-ounce bag frozen raspberries, set out for a half hour so that they are slightly thawed
- 1 pint fresh raspberries (optional)*
*I didn’t use fresh raspberries because they were way too expensive for their poor, midwinter quality. I just topped the trifle with the whole berries that were in the bag of frozen raspberries.
1) Cut the cake into 2-inch pieces. Place in the bottom of a trifle bowl or a large, high-sided clear glass bowl, leaving no space in between. Cut smaller slices to fill spaces as necessary.
2) Top the cake layer with half of the chocolate pudding, spreading it into any spaces in the cake layer and smoothing the top so that it is as flat as possible.
3) Remove about 30 whole raspberries from the bag of frozen ones (if not using fresh ones). Sprinkle half of the rest of the bag, including the pieces on top of the pudding layer.
4) Top the raspberries with a thick layer of whipped cream, smoothing out the berries so that the top of the partially-assembled trifle is flat.
5) Repeat the cake, pudding, raspberries and whipped cream layers. Decorate with either the whole frozen raspberries or the fresh ones.