Rhubarb berry trifle
On rhubarb, stewed fruit and England
I first saw this curious plant called rhubarb during the time we lived for 5 years in Berkshire, England. I was 5 when we moved there. The rhubarb grew like a small jungle in a corner of the vegetable patch of the house we were renting, alongside some equally puzzling gooseberry bushes. Neither existed at all in Japan at the time, and my mother was at a loss as to what to do with them, until our next door neighbor lady told her how to stew them. The neighbor lady believed in stewing most fruit - she told my mother to stew or jam all of the raspberries too, since eating them raw may lead to upset small tummies. Thankfully my mother didn’t take her advice for all of the raspberries, and I still have memories of stickily enjoying bowls and bowls of red, ripe raspberries with clouds of whipped cream. One of the first things I did when I got my own garden was to plant several raspberry canes.
Stewed and cooked fruit figures quite prominently in my memories of English food at the time. This was in the ’70s. Whenever I was invited to tea at a friend’s house, there was usually always some sort of cooked fruit dish, be it a compote of peaches in the summer or apple and blackberry pie later on in the year. I think we only ate fresh, raw fruit at home, except for bananas and strawberries. I didn’t even know that gooseberries could be anything other than sour, green and only edible stewed with sugar, until I came to Switzerland and saw them left to ripen on a bush, turning a bright reddish-purple.
That penchant for cooking fruit does mean that there are many terrific fruity desserts (aka puddings) in British cookbooks. One of them is trifle. I’m in the midst of my annual rhubarb orgy period, and it’s one ‘fruit’ (though it’s botanically a vegetable) that needs to be cooked. Hence, the rhubarb trifle.
The slightly modernized trifle
A trifle is small pieces of sponge cake soaked in a sweet, fruity liquid, and topped with custard or cream. Some versions of trifle are quite alcoholic, but this one has no alcohol in it since I imagine my 8 year old self tucking into it. The components are simple: the fruit-liquidy mix, the cake, and the creamy topping. The key part that makes this trifle different is the rhubarb soaking liquid part, which is quite sour and not too sweet. I’ve added a few frozen berries (raspberries from last summer’s crop in fact) to make the red color more intense - if you have fresh strawberries by all means use those instead.
Trifle is traditionally topped with custard, cream or both. Here I have combined the two so to speak and topped it with vanilla ice cream instead - this is the slightly modernized part. It’s homemade but you can use a good store bought ice cream if you don’t want to bother, or don’t have an ice cream maker.
I think that the key to a good trifle is to not overload it with sponge cake, which makes it go rather stodgy. Add just a few pieces for the interesting texture. Note that I’ve used pieces of store bought roll cake here (called Swiss roll in England, but not really Swiss as far as I know) which adds some extra flavor. You can assemble it all in a big bowl, or in individual glasses as I’ve done here.
Rhubarb berry trifle with vanilla ice cream
To keep the color as clean and red as possible, use only the red parts of rhubarb stalks. This may mean buying more rhubarb than you need. Use the green parts for another dish.
I’ve used cup measurements here throughout since it’s easier for this particular recipe, and everything is proportional. Note 1 cup = 250ml.
The ice cream part:
This makes more ice cream than you’ll probably need but…anything wrong with that? I don’t think so. You can skip this step and get some good quality store bought.
Vanilla Ice Cream
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp. real vanilla extract
- 4 egg yolks from pasteurized eggs or eggs from very happy organic hens
- 7/8th cups (a bit less than 1 cup) sugar
- 1 cup heavy cream
If using a vanilla pod, cut it open and scrape out the beans put the pod and the beans into the milk. Let the milk simmer for about 10-15 minutes on very low heat.
In a bowl, beat together the yolks and the sugar. Slowly add the heated milk (fish out the pod), beating vigorously. Add the vanilla extract if you are using that. Add the cream and whisk together. Let cool until ice cold. Put into an ice cream maker and churn following the manufacturer’s instructions. This, incidentally, is my standard vanilla ice cream recipe.
The rhubarb-berry part:
- 8 cups of cut up red rhubarb
- 1 cup fresh or frozen red berries (raspberries or strawberries or even red currants)
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- Juice of 1 lemon
Mix everything together in a non-reactive pan (stainless steel, enamel or non-stick. Not aluminum or iron in other words). Heat over medium-low heat - after a while it will become quite liquid. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the rhubarb pieces are soft.
Let cool to room temperature, and taste - if it seems too sour to you (remembering that you’ll be adding sweet cake pieces to it) add a little sugar and mix well to melt.
The cake part:
- A store bought (Swiss) roll cake with a jam and cream filling
To assemble it all:
For every cup of the rhubarb mixture, add about 1/3 cup’s worth of cut up cake. Don’t overload the liquid with the cake, and reserve some for decoration. Allow the combined mixture to mellow and cool in the fridge for several hours.
To serve, scoop the mixture into individual parfait glasses or into one big glass bowl, a trifle bowl if you have one. The mixture should come up to about 2/3rds of the height of the glass. Top with scoops of softened vanilla ice cream, and decorate with slices of the roll cake.