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The author has trifled a bit with the classic tipsy cake

Yes, we’ve had a jolly good time. Let’s make our resolutions tomorrow and, meanwhile, reimagine the remains of desserts today. Surely there will be an invitation to watch the game, hear vacation stories or head out for a long walk; each can provide the occasion for a sweet hurrah, bound by a single rule: no shopping for ingredients.

Such a dessert could be called a countertop-sweeper, but it’s more formally known as a trifle: one of those Great British recipes with an evocative name, joining the ranks of the Eton mess, the fool and the stargazey pie.

Turns out, there’s something similar on this side of the pond. Across America’s South, there is tipsy cake. Like a trifle, it contains fruit or jam, booze, custard and some kind of cake. According to Stella Parks, author of the upcoming “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts” (W.W. Norton, fall 2017): “Tipsy cakes are very casual. They are not even layered – just dump the cake in the bowl.” But unlike trifles, she says, original tipsy cakes of the mid-1800s were always finished with blanched, slivered almonds.

A tipsy trifle – a mash-up of the two – was my goal. But which kind of cake to start with? This year, I had pound cake, but I gave serious consideration to using a plateful of pistachio snowball cookies. Any sponge cake, pound cake or panettone will do, even better when the cake’s a little stale. It is cubed and then sprinkled – never soaked or doused – with a combination of brandy and sweet wine or sherry. If the wine is dry and not sweet, “just add a spoonful of sugar,” Parks says.

Most recipes call for spreading the cake with jam before layering it in the bowl. I had an early surplus of blood oranges, so I coated thick rounds of them in deep, dark caramel to add bitter notes to the sweet dessert. If you don’t have oranges on the counter or fresh fruit languishing in the refrigerator, use just the jam.

The custard can be rich or light. Parks’s tipsy-cake research found 19th-century cookbooks that called for a custard made from “one to four eggs per cup of liquid.” For children, cooks were encouraged to use “fewer eggs and yellow food coloring, and it will look as though it were made with the bounty of a dozen eggs.” This, I think, gives us permission to make a custard based on the eggs and dairy in the house. We can skip the food coloring. To gild the lily, top the tipsy trifle with a cloud of whipped cream. You can substitute yogurt, sour cream or crème fraîche if all the cream was used in the custard.

Instead of crunchy almonds on top, I used peanut brittle, which accomplished a double mission of using leftovers and getting rid of a temptation in our post-resolution house.

There is no need to worry about finding the perfect serving vessel. There are, of course, footed glass trifle bowls designed to show off the dessert’s layers. If there is one hanging around in your cupboard, you’re set. Other options: I’ve used a large hurricane-style candle holder (shown in the accompanying photograph). A tall, wide glass vase or salad bowl will work. If you’re feeling fancy, build individual trifles in parfait glasses. But whatever you do, remember: This is not a demanding dessert. It’s made from what’s on hand.

And what’s on hand doesn’t necessarily have to do with the holidays at all. The next time you bake something with a crumb that fails to come out of the pan fully intact, turn those chunks into an anytime tipsy-cake dessert. It has happened to me. There is no shame in failure – only opportunity.

Caramelized Blood Orange Tipsy Trifle

6 to 8 servings

Use any dense cake or sweet bread, such as sponge cake, panettone, or yogurt or olive oil cake. Substitute white or red wine for the sherry; if the wine is particularly dry, add 1 teaspoon of sugar. For the custard, 2 cups of half-and-half can substitute for the whipping cream and milk. Sauteed apples, strawberry jam or frozen/defrosted raspberries can stand in for the blood oranges here.

A trifle bowl is almost always made of glass, to show off the dessert’s layers.

MAKE AHEAD: The caramelized oranges can be cooled, covered and refrigerated a day or two in advance. The tipsy cake needs to be refrigerated (without the topping) for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.

From Cathy Barrow.


For the tipsy cake

6 blood oranges

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cup whole milk (see headnote)

1 cup whipping cream (see headnote)

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise in half

4 large egg yolks, at room temperature

2 tablespoons sherry (sweet or dry; see headnote)

2 tablespoons brandy or rum

18 ounces pound cake, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes (4 packed cups; see headnote)

For the topping

1 cup whipped cream

1/2 cup crumbled peanut brittle, plus 1 pretty piece for a centerpiece garnish


For the tipsy cake: Slice a small amount off the end of each blood orange; stand the orange on end and, with a sharp knife, slice away the peel and white pith all around. Tip each orange over and slice it into one into two or three disks, placing them in a bowl as you work. It’s okay if they break up a bit.

Combine 1/2 cup of the sugar and the water in a large, straight-sided skillet over medium-high heat, shaking the pan until the sugar has dissolved. Cook for several minutes, watching closely so the mixture doesn’t burn, until it has turned into an amber-colored caramel and smells slightly bitter. Remove the skillet from the heat and reduce the burner temperature to low; add the oranges and any accumulated juices and return the pan to the stove top over low heat. The caramel will seize, but continue to cook until it re-liquefies and the oranges take on a slight caramel flavor, about 10 minutes.

Set a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof medium bowl. Combine the milk, whipping cream and vanilla bean halves in a medium saucepan over medium heat; cook until small bubbles form at the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat.

Whisk together (by hand) the egg yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a bowl until the mixture is a creamy lemon yellow. Gradually whisk in half the heated milk mixture (to temper the eggs), then pour that blended mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, to form a slightly thickened custard that coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat; remove the vanilla bean halves.

Strain the custard through the fine-mesh strainer, pushing it through with a spatula. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla bean halves and add them to the strained custard, stirring to incorporate.

When ready to assemble, combine the sherry and the brandy or rum in a small bowl. Arrange half the caramelized blood oranges at the bottom of the trifle bowl. Add half of the cubed cake; press it down gently, then sprinkle half of the sherry-and-brandy mixture over the cake. Use the remaining caramelized blood oranges to create the next layer, making sure to press the fruit against the sides of the bowl. Press in the remaining cubed cake, then shower the cake with the remaining sherry and brandy.

Gradually pour the custard over the contents of the bowl, making sure it flows between all the layers of cake and fruit. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or, even better, overnight.

For the topping: Just before serving, top with the whipped cream. Scatter peanut brittle over the top and garnish with a substantial piece of brittle. Serve chilled; use a long-handled spoon to ensure each that portion includes some of each layer.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 8): 570 calories, 7 g protein, 65 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 295 mg cholesterol, 300 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 53 g sugar

Barrow is a Washington cookbook author.

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