“The idea came when I saw some cherries in the fridge,” said Arnaud Schon, the French chef who cooks lunches for visiting dignitaries at The Economist. “I like to do traditional English dishes, so why not a trifle based on Black Forest gateau? It’s a good dish for a picnic, or to eat in the garden.”
Arnaud’s trifle technique follows ancient precedent by using jelly to produce rigid strata, ignoring the modern tendency to skip this fixative for a looser construction. It can lead to arguments between adherents of the two schools: “they get surprisingly worked up about it,” the great food writer Alan Davidson once told me.
“I like the layers,” Arnaud insists. “Otherwise the trifle goes like a Jackson Pollock when you put a spoon in it.”
Made individually in glass beakers, Arnaud’s trifle runs to seven layers. He begins with a foundation of custard. “Actually, it’s crème chiboust, which is the egg custard called crème pâtissière but with added gelatine and whipped cream.”
“Good grief!” I said, feeling daunted already. “I use Marks & Spencer’s vanilla custard. It tastes good and is quite stiff.”
Arnaud shrugged. “Well, I’m a chef, so I make everything. But some supermarket custards can be good.”
His second layer is chocolate sponge. “After all, it’s a Black Forest trifle. Of course I make the sponge as well. I would never buy lady’s fingers.”
Here again, we differed. No amateur cook would make a sponge finger that was going to be buried in a trifle – at least this one wouldn’t. So, after our meeting, extensive research was required. This established that a product called Chocolate Fingerellas was just the job.
The third layer is jelly with poached cherries. Here, at last, Arnaud and I agreed. Poached fresh cherries are incomparably better than tinned or frozen. “I love them,” said Arnaud. “English cherries have such a short season – less than a month – but they’re so juicy and sweet. At their best, they have an amazing crunch and then melt in the mouth. To tell if they’re all right, I eat one for quality control.”
“I don’t know how you manage to eat only one.”
“You’re right. Maybe I eat a few.”
When de-stoning the cherries, my instinct would be to reach for the olive pitter. “No!” said Arnaud. “It bruises the flesh. Instead, I cut them in half and take the stone out.”
He’s quite right. It’s a doddle and the resulting half-cherries are immaculate. He simmers the cherries for about seven minutes in a mixture of kirsch and port with a sprinkle of sugar and a splash of water. Ever the perfectionist, he says, “If you can get homemade kirsch from a German cherry farm, it will be a lot less harsh and fiery than commercial varieties.”
When it was my turn – with 400 miles and the North Sea separating me from the Black Forest – I settled for kirsch from Sainsbury’s.
“After the cherries have cooked,” Arnaud went on, “make the cooking juices into a jelly with gelatine. It’s quite easy if you follow the instructions on the packet.” Here, I had no objection to following le style Arnaud. When the jelly solution has cooled, you can start building the layers: custard, chocolate sponge, cherries. Pour the jelly over the cherries so it soaks into the sponge. When the jelly has set (use the fridge), repeat the process, so you end up with six layers.
The seventh according to Arnaud’s formula, consists of crème chantilly, a lightly sweetened, whipped cream, which he pipes on top with an icing bag and nozzle. For those of us less practised in the art of patisserie, a spoon must suffice. But the finishing touch of grated dark chocolate, preferably with a high cocoa content, should present no problem even to the most maladroit of cooks.
My shortcut version was, according to my wife (no great lover of trifle), “a triumph”. The look of this summer treat, with layers of marbling like the clouds of the planet Jupiter, intrigued the eye, while on the palate, the tinge of chocolate worked well with the trifle layers. And the crunch of the parboiled cherries was far more interesting than the customary soft fruit.
But, as I made it out of season, I had to use Chilean cherries. “Hmph,” said Arnaud. “You never follow the instructions. It is very naughty.”