Friday, May 8, 2015

Emily's Celebration Trifle

A time consuming, but surprisingly tasty wartime treat!

Happy VE Day, everyone! May 8th, 1945 marks the 70th anniversary of the formal surrender of Nazi Germany, a day celebrated all over the world back in 1945... except maybe in certain parts of the Pacific, where Allied troops were still engaged in deadly combat and would be for the better part of two months. But for civilians and troops in Europe and on other Allied home fronts, today was a day to party, and parties always mean good food.

But for countries that had been at war for the better part of a decade, good food wasn't always easy to find between rationing and shortages. England in particular was a nation without much by way of luxury food items - being an island nation at war with an enemy that had a tight grip on shipping lines for years made shipping in supplies difficult, and shortages didn't improve even after the Battle of the Atlantic had been won and supplies from the US and Canada could come across the ocean. Each person was allowed one egg per week, so deciding how those real eggs would be used became very, very difficult. Even making icing for cake was illegal, as it was considered wasteful!

On VE Day, all those attitudes about stretching your rations and forbidding wasteful food went out the window for people in England. Communities pooled together to bake cake with the previously forbidden icing, make sandwiches and concoct unique sweets like carrots dipped in melted sugar and eaten like a lollipop in one big explosion of fun and excitement, and one of those recipes is what we're going to be looking at today.

This recipe is a war time version of a classic British dessert, which was kind of a hard sell to my family, but ultimately turned out to be a pretty big hit. Our enthusiasm wasn't exactly the same level as it would have been if we were back in 1945, but I don't think it was a stretch for anyone to be able to see how this would have been an incredibly indulgent, satisfying way to celebrate the end of the most devastating conflict in human history.

Our celebration trifle comes from Marguerite Patten's Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts from 1940 - 1954. Patten worked for the Ministry of Food during the war and while working as the head of the Ministry of Food Bureau at Harrod's (a famous department store in London) came up with ways to help families make tasty and healthy meals from their weekly rations. A prolific cookbook writer in the post war years, Patten is considered an expert on wartime cooking and was one of the first celebrity television chefs. She has been recognized and awarded by Britain for her contribution during the war, and is all around a pretty cool lady, who is currently coming up on her hundredth birthday!

Victory Cookbook spends a lot of time talking about VE Day, and various kind of victory parties people threw in honor of the end of the war, including full menus and recipes for each item listed if you're interested in throwing your own full on party! Many communities had huge street parties, with food and activities geared towards children, who also got to benefit from parties at home and school, or at community centers. And remember, some of these kids were returning home after being evacuated to the countryside for their own safety, leading to tearful and exciting reunions with family members they might not have seen in months, if not years. A popular activity was holding a raffle for an incredibly coveted item during wartime - an onion! Something a modern kid might not appreciate, but one that was desperately missed during wartime as a provider of flavor and texture in many dishes.

For some kids, these parties would also be the first time they'd ever eaten ice cream, a treat that had been all but unavailable for people who weren't close personal friends of people like Winston Churchill in England. Lieutenant (later Captain and then Major) Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne Division often complained in letters to his parents back in Pennsylvania that the thing he missed most about home was ice cream, and there was literally no where to get it in England while he was stationed there before and after D-Day.

One of the first desserts suggested is a so called celebration trifle. Trifle dates back to at least the very late 1500's, but the trifle of that age is pretty far removed from what Emily would have been eating at a VE Day party, or what you might have had at a cookout or holiday party. Generally, trifle is a layered dessert featuring alcohol soaked cake, fruit, jelly (traditionally meaning gelatin or jello for us Yanks) and some kind of custard or pudding, either kept in four or so separate layers, or alternated more frequently so there's not just one layer of each in the bowl.

If you're making an entirely homemade trifle versus chopping up a store bought pound cake or using pre-made jello, custard and/or pudding, it can be a deceptively time consuming process. The recipe says it should only take about half an hour, but mine took... probably four or five times that. Maybe more. Seriously, most of my weekend was spent fussing over parts of this recipe, which is admittedly partly because there were a few hiccups along the way. Now that I know what to expect, maybe it won't take as long next time! One other thing when it comes to timing: this generally needs to sit in the fridge overnight to let the flavors and custard settle, so this would probably be best for a VE Day party you know you're throwing at least a day in advance, not so much a spontaneous "guess what I just heard on the radio!" type of event.

To start, you need your cake base. I used Marguerite's recipe for whisked sponge slab, which was definitely something that would have set us back ration wise for the rest of the week - it required three eggs! That means in my family of five, I'd only have two fresh eggs for the rest of the week, and we haven't even touched the custard yet. You needed 85 grams of plain flour sifted with 3/4 teaspoons of baking powder, 110 grams of sugar, and three reconstituted dry or three fresh eggs. Using the reconstituted eggs might have helped us stretch our rations for the week, but our modern grocery store didn't have them, so fresh eggs it was!

You begin by whisking the eggs, and then whisk them again in a bowl with the sugar. Once the mixture thickens, you fold in the flour and pour it into your greased baking tin to bake in a 375 degree oven for anywhere from 12 to 15 minutes. Since I didn't have the exact size baking tin she was looking for - 12 x 8 or 9 inches - I cooked mine for a little less time just to be sure it didn't burn.

Honestly, this was very, very concerning when I pulled this out of the oven. It smelled like a frittata. Like, a lot like one. Like, wow, this is not going to taste like a cake at all, is it? This is just going to be an eggy mess. But after making my dad smell it, he said he thought it smelled like a sponge cake, so I decided I might as well carry on and see what happened.

I chopped up the cake into squares as instructed, and then spread strawberry jam between the two halves, making little sandwiches of sponge and jam to line the bottom of the trifle bowl. A good trifle bowl is clear and lets you get a good look at the layers from all sides, and you want to make sure your cake is covering as much of the base as possible so every scoop will hopefully get some in it.

No trifle would be complete without a fruit element, and traditionally, this means fruit that's been canned and swimming in a slimy fruit syrup. Canned fruit was another luxury item in wartime Britain. Civilians and military personnel would befriend and entertain American servicemen and women, who would often bring things like canned pineapple to their British host's homes as a thank you for having them over for dinner or entertaining them for the evening. Ours was a mixture of peaches, grapes, pineapple, and potentially a few other largely unidentifiable cooked fruits. Don't go for the light syrup, here - it's VE Day!

Another necessary ingredient for a good English trifle is booze. For this trifle, you need 1/4 pint of sweet sherry, which you're instructed to pour into a vessel and then add enough of the fruit syrup from the canned fruit to give you about 225 ml of liquid. This gets spooned over the sponge cakes, and the fruit gets chopped and added on top of that.

You're then instructed to take the remaining syrup in the can and mix it with the liquid you're either dissolving or making the jelly (remember, this means jello) with. You can make your own jelly or fruit mash, but since I was already hand making the cake and custard, I decided it would just be easier for the good folks at Jell-O to make the jelly for me. I boiled the rest of the fruit syrup with a cup of water as instructed, and dumped the packet of jelly in it. Once it was dissolved, the whole thing got poured over the fruit and cake, making sure each piece got as even an amount as possible.

What's great about the fruit related steps is that you can really do whatever you want with them. I used strawberry jam, mixed canned fruit and cherry jello, and everything tasted great! If you'd rather have a more homogenous mix of fruit, or go even crazier with flavors, that's totally your choice.

I left mine in the fridge to cool down and solidify before adding the custard.

After we came back from dinner, I decided to tackle the custard. I know American trifles often use pudding instead, but this isn't an American recipe, so we had to make custard. The custard could definitely make this a really ration unfriendly treat if you decided to make it with real eggs, but you could also do it with fake eggs... or cheat and use custard powder because there isn't a wartime custard recipe in this book and your grocery store didn't have dried eggs.

Needless to say, we cheated, and I managed to burn a fair amount of it to the bottom of the pan, which mean spending a good hour and a half trying to scrub it clean. At least it didn't look or taste too scorched! Custard powder has instructions on the side of the tub for how to cook it on the stove and in the microwave, making about a pint at a time. It's an easy conversion for recipes that need more, like this one, which needed four pints of custard total.

This gets left to cool before adding it over the top of your other ingredients, and then the whole thing can get tucked in the fridge to chill for the night.

Once you're ready to serve it, whip up some cream and decorate with maraschino cherries - I did mine in a V for Victory! - and you're ready to tuck in!

Despite there being quite a lot of discussion about how this might not be something people would want to eat, I have photographic evidence of people digging in and enjoying it.

I do have one confession, though: this whipped cream was supposed to be made of a can of evaporated milk that had been placed in a pot of boiling water for fifteen minutes and chilled in the freezer for thirty before being whipped. I tried that, I really did, and after whipping and whipping and whipping and (embarrassingly) bursting into frustrated tears because this was a recipe that just did not want to be finished and I had other things I wanted to do with my weekend, thank you very much, trifle, I finally gave up and went to the store to get heavy cream. The cookbook also offers suggestions for making a mock cream from things like margarine, cornflour and milk, but honestly at this point, I was so tired I really just wanted to be done and eat the trifle everyone kept saying they weren't going to like.

Taste wise? I'm pretty sure everyone thought this was a lot better than they expected it to taste, including me. While this is definitely a very luxurious recipe for wartime England - again, intentionally so - it's still a wartime recipe, and that's still for some reason a difficult sell to people, despite success with the various wartime recipes I've made in the past. Honestly, I'm often most interested to try war time recipes because of our success with them in the past, and the fact that they often don't use a lot of butter and sugar makes them marginally healthier than some other things we could be eating.

First off, the sponge cake didn't taste like eggs! I'm not sure if it's just because it mostly tasted like cherry jello, but it had good texture and was actually probably my favorite part of the trifle - I wish we had more of it! The custard, fruit and cream was all good, too, and together, it created a nice dessert with a lot of flavor where each bite had different textures and tastes to enjoy, instead of the same thing bite after bite. While I'm certainly not turning my nose up at things like a nice chocolate cake, it's nice to have something different, too

My only real complaint besides how long this took to make was the ratio of custard to everything else in the trifle seemed off to me. The custard wasn't bad, but it definitely wasn't my favorite part of the trifle, and no matter how you scooped out your bowlful, you ended up with a lot of custard, and not much anything else. I think next time, I'd like to add more sponge, jello and fruit, or just make less custard to help offset this problem. Overall, though? This was a surprisingly tasty and surprisingly successful dish, especially considering how nervous I was while actually making it. While it might be a while before I break this one out again, I definitely wouldn't be opposed to having it again!

If you're interested in further reading about desserts to make on VE Day, I've got something else for you to take a look at!

Several months ago, I was approached by Bella and Lulu of The Doll Mag, an excellent blog with great craft and fashion ideas for dolls (not just AG!) and most uniquely, publishes a bimonthly virtual magazine featuring these ideas, along with submissions from readers and other fun activities and articles about things like the history of popular doll lines like Barbie. The magazine actually reminds me a lot of a much more doll specific American Girl Magazine, which was a favorite of my sister and I back when we were kids. Bella and Lulu asked if I'd be interested in doing an article for their May/June issue, and I said absolutely! If you're interested in checking out the article, complete with a recipe for my favorite war time treat, and the rest of the magazine, you can access it here on their blog! Thanks again for contacting me, guys, it was a big honor to be included in your first ever Doll Blogger issue!

So happy VE Day, everyone! Make yourself a treat, and even if you don't, at least take a moment to think back on what happened seventy years ago today. While this might not be a holiday we mark like the Fourth of July, or Australians remember Anzac Day, it was a day that people around the world celebrated like no other and marks the end of a conflict that many people reference, but few really understand the way we should. Go out and worry about your rations tomorrow!

With the amount we might be eating, maybe it's not so bad we won't have much for the rest of the week...


  1. Wow, that looks waaaay more delicious than it should..
    Don't beat yourself up too hard over the cream, I'm sure farm kids would have some of it stowed away in secret somewhere, ;) Worst case, there's always the black market, which was expensive, but sod that, because V-day.

    1. True! But as nice as real cream is, I don't think I'm willing to pay black market prices for it. ;)

  2. As you may recall, I was pretty adamant of my disdain for trifle. Growing up, for many Christmases my mom made a traditional trifle. The recipe was passed on to her from her neighbor, Margaret, who came to the states as an English war bride. I never really liked this concoction. As a kid, it just seemed to have too much going on for my taste. And although it looked lovely when mom brought it to the table, once you dug into the trifle it looked like a giant, gloppy mess. So I was thinking I would take a pass as one of your taste testers this go round. However after all your hard work, I felt bad and thought why not give it a go. And here's God's honest truth...I liked it. I really liked it. Most surprisingly, I liked the dubious smelling sponge cake. I too wondered about the taste, but it really stood up well in the trifle and added a nice texture. Nice job and Happy VE Day!

    1. Thanks for being willing to give this a shot! I know it was a hard sell and me getting frustrated when the evaporated milk wouldn't whip wasn't fun for anyone involved, but I really appreciated everyone giving it a shot, especially you after you said you really didn't like trifle!

  3. If you have access to Hulu, see if you can catch season 1, episode one of "The Supersizers Go..." THe end of their WW2 episode has a recreations of a VE celebration, complete with older people recalling their first VE parties, and children being perplexed at the period treats.

    1. I'm actually a recent fan of The Supersizers Go... ! My girlfriend recommended it to me and we've been working our way through both series. We just watched the Roman and French Revolution episodes this weekend. :)