Baked Sunday Mornings: Chai Spice Trifle with Mixed Berries

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God save the Queen!… is what I was thinking while straining my chai spice pastry cream. I never really thought of custard as an area of weakness in my baking repertoire, though now I’m starting to wonder. But let’s back up for a minute to honor a royal birthday! In celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday (which is actually on April 21, but is apparently observed in June), Baked Sunday Mornings made this Chai Spice Trifle with Mixed Berries, which also happened to be a perfectly refreshing dessert for Memorial Day. I can’t claim to have much of a fascination with the Queen herself, but I sure did adore Princess Diana, and Duchess Kate seems to embody all our hopes and dreams. And she wears fabulous hats, so there’s that. I do find the history of the English royal families totally fascinating—all the dynasties, scandals, alliances, and politics!

I’m not quite sure why chai was chosen to party it up for the Queen of England, other than the association with tea, but it is one delicious combination of flavors, despite my sad pastry cream (more on that later). The trifle, however, is a decidedly English dessert with a long and storied history. It has gone through many, many reinventions over the centuries, and has traditionally been served both at home and in restaurants. The standard ingredients are sponge cake soaked in sherry, raspberry jam, egg custard, and whipped cream (though there are endless personal variations of fruit and alcohol), and it has always been served in a deep glass dish to show off the layers. A British coworker mentioned that other additions might be raisins or slivered almonds… Needless to say, this BAKED version is rather untraditional, and I think I prefer this one!

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So let’s trifle, people. First of all, this is a very time-consuming project. I didn’t have a chance (i.e. didn’t want to peel myself from the couch after work) to make the pound cake ahead of time, so it took basically the whole day to make all the trifle components. Normally it’s best to do that so the pound cake is a little firmer on the second day, but it wasn’t an issue.

I started with the chai pastry cream, since it needs 5+ hours to chill and set. Before you start with any of the dairy ingredients, you’ll make a chai spice blend of ground cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, allspice, cloves, white pepper, and nutmeg. I used freshly grated nutmeg rather than ground, so I doubled the quantity to ½ teaspoon. You can use 2 tablespoons of the spice mix, or up to all of it, save for a tiny bit that you can use as a garnish; I found that 2 tablespoons was just right—the flavor is clearly present, but is not overpowering.

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Once the spices are whisked, you make two mixtures: First, combine the egg yolks with half of the sugar, chai spice mix, cornstarch, and salt. (I recommend whisking together the sugar and cornstarch first to break up the cornstarch lumps.) This makes for a thick, golden brown slurry.

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Secondly, combine the milk with the rest of the sugar in a saucepan, which you’ll bring to a boil. Pour about ⅓ of this hot mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. This is important because if it sits, the egg will get cooked and scrambled, and you will be sad.

The milk will loosen up the egg slurry, and you’ll pour the whole thing back into the pot with the milk, then heat it until it boils and cook/stir for 2 minutes. This was a pretty explosive brew, with large, thick bubbles exploding all over my stovetop and hands!

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The custard then gets strained (not fun to wash the spices out of that sieve!), and you’ll add butter, vanilla, cream, and rum. I put the bowl over a water bath to help speed along the cooling process before a 5-hour nap in the fridge, during which it will thicken considerably.

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Ever so sadly, my pastry cream turned out grainy. I suspected as much when I strained it, but I was hoping that the Custard Gods would conjure an 11th-hour miracle; however, it was not to be. It was still delicious and perfectly spiced, but the texture was loose and mealy. I’m not sure what went wrong, though I suspect that I cooked it too long or the heat was too high. (I couldn’t find a definitive source to explain what might have happened since recipes vary, but some websites and blogs said that you should only boil pastry cream for a few seconds.) It was still usable, but I seriously thought about remaking it.

While the pastry cream chilled, I made my pound cake—I just love this recipe. For a fleeting moment I had contemplated buying a pound cake for the sake of time, but I’m glad I didn’t because this is a really buttery, scrumptious recipe.

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Ever since we made the Rainbow Icebox Cake last year, I’ve been employing a little trick with whipped cream that works wonders to extend its stability: draining the cream. Once you whip the cream, scrape it into a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl, cover, and put it in the fridge for about 4-6 hours to drain the liquid. (This will be conveniently be ready to use at about the same time as the pastry cream.) The result is a fluffier cream that will not weep! Therefore, if your trifle sits in the fridge overnight or longer, you will not end up with a watery, slimy mess. Because who wants to eat that.

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Since I made this for Memorial Day, I wanted to have red and blue berries, so I used strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. The farmers’ market is bursting with amazing berries right now, so I couldn’t resist! Obviously you can customize any which way you want.

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Lastly, I made the rum syrup, which simply involves melting sugar with water, heating it, and adding rum. The recipe says to apply the syrup pretty liberally, but I wanted to retain some of the pound cake texture, so I went pretty easy on the syrup.

After preparing all five (5!) components, I was finally ready to assemble the trifle. I started with a layer of pound cake slices brushed with rum syrup, followed by layers of berries, pastry cream, and whipped cream. You’ll repeat this twice more and finish with a fluffy cloud of whipped cream and a dusting of chai spice mix. The whole thing needs to set in the fridge for two hours. I was surprised that my trifle dish could barely contain all the layers! Usually it’s hard to fill the entire thing, but I had berries practically spilling over the edge—this is a great dessert for a big summer BBQ, as it serves 24 people.

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The trifle presents a wonderful array of flavors: buttery cake, freshly whipped cream, sweet and tart berries, and the warm chai spices. It caught me by surprise, I must say! The only downside was the undesirable texture of the pastry cream. Still, my tasters enjoyed it, and I would consider making it again in the future.

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Whether you’re heralding the Queen or celebrating summer, visit Baked Sunday Mornings for the Chai Spice Trifle with Mixed Berries recipe! Take a look at my fellow triflers’ beautiful dishes while you’re there. 🙂

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2016.

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