Gingerbread Cranberry Trifle


I've been reading Gretchen Rubin's Happier at Home lately and laughing at all her little lists, rules for life, resolutions, and mantras. Laughing because I relate so completely to wanting to categorize the world that way. I won't go so far as to say we're two peas in a pod (her pod happens to be more disciplined and successful than mine) but I'm sure we'd enjoy a cup of coffee with one another.

She has a rule to Keep it Simple. Unless it leads to too much simplicity! She says,

 I was always telling myself, "Keep it simple." But as Albert Einstein pointed out, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." I was made happier by my decision to bring paper plates, not home-baked muffins, to Eleanor's school party, but "Keep it simple" wasn't always the right response. Many things that boosted my happiness also added complexity to my life. Having children. Learning to post videos to my website. Going to an out-of-town wedding. Applied too broadly, my impulse to "Keep it simple" would impoverish me. "Life is barren enough surely with all her trappings," warned Samuel Johnson, "let us therefore be cautious how we strip her."

I would put food and cooking into the "Happy Complexity" category. Making thoughtful decisions about what to feed my family, keeping a stocked pantry, cooking every day. All of this boosts my happiness, but it surely adds complexity. I always joke that if I were to add up the hours I spend planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, eating, and cleaning up, I'd go into shock.

Yancey and I are going to his work Christmas party tonight. His world at the fire station is so separate from mine, and it's a rare chance to meet his shift-mates and their partners and have a night away from the kids. Yancey signed up for the dessert slot, and I decided not to Keep it Simple. Instead, I made this trifle between basketball games, and it's made the house smell amazing all day. (Gretchen also talks about her rule of Embrace Good Smells. Check.)

Out of all the desserts in the world I could make, I chose this one because:

  1. I've made it before. As Christopher Kimball says, new recipes aren't what most of us need. We need to master a few good ones. I love pulling things out of my back pocket.
  2. Oil-based cakes like this gingerbread one are foolproof. You're not creaming butter and sugar, it's guaranteed to be moist.
  3. I adore ginger, gingerbread, and the tang of cranberries. Even though this dessert is definitely sweet, it's a spicy break from the over-the-top sugar that's around every corner at Christmas.
  4. No cooking eggs for a custard! Even I stress over custard occasionally. This mascarpone-based custard couldn't be easier.
  5. One trifle bowl will easily feed 15 adults, and it transports well.

And, to remind myself mostly, here's the Christmas Pledge I've posted at least once before. Thank you for being such a joyful part of my year:

The Christmas Pledge:

  1. To remember those who truly need my gifts.
  2. To express my love for family and friends in more direct ways than presents.
  3. To rededicate myself to the spiritual growth of my family.
  4. To examine my holiday activities in light of the true spirit of Christmas.
  5. To initiate one act of peacemaking within my circle of family and friends.

Gingerbread Cranberry Trifle
This is adapted from Epicurious. I found their recipe overly complicated, so yes, I made it simpler! You'll need a deep trifle dish or big glass bowl for this. I found the recipe made more than my trifle dish held, so I made mini trifles in drinking glasses with the rest. Fun and cute. Really any straight-sided glass vessel will work. The one pictured is packed in a glass cannister. I put a lid on it and gave it as a gift.

You'll need to have this assembled and in the fridge at least 4 hours before you need it as the "mushing" time is crucial for trifles. If you made it the night before, it would be even better.

Wine-poached cranberries
2 cups fruity red wine (such as Syrah)
2 cups sugar
16 oz. fresh or frozen cranberries

Gingerbread cake
1 c. extra stout (such as Guinness)
1 c. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 c. flour
2 Tb. ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon 
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
3 large egs
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
3/4 c. vegetable oil

Mascarpone cream:
3 8 oz. containers mascarpone cheese (3 cups)
3 c. chilled heavy cream
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar
3 Tb. Grand Mariner or orange liqueur
4 tsp. finely grated orange peel

For wine-poached cranberries:
Stir wine and sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil wine mixture for 5 minutes. Add cranberries and simmer until soft but still intact, about 5 minutes. Transfer mixture to a bowl and chill. Before using, pour cranberry mixture through a strainer to separate cranberries and syrup.

For cake:
Combine stout and molasses in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up). Pour into a bowl and put in the fridge to cool down.

Preheat oven to 350. Generously butter 3 8" cake pans and dust with flour.

Whisk flour and next 6 ingredients in a large bowl to blend. Whisk eggs and sugar in a medium bowl, then whisk oil and cooled stout mixture into egg mixture.  Gradually add flour mixture to stout-egg mixture and divide batter between prepared pans. It will look like it's not enough. Don't worry--you're going to cut the cake up into cubes, so it doesn't have to be all pretty and fluffy.

Bake until inserter comes out clean, about 25 minutes, switching pans on racks halfway through to ensure even cooking. Cook cakes in pans for 15 minutes, then turn out onto racks or a piece of parchment paper. Once cakes are cool, use a serrated knife to cut the cake into 1" cubes.

For mascrapone custard:
Using electric mixer, beat mascarpone in large bowl until smooth. Add all remaining ingredients and beat until peaks form and mixture is smooth. (Don't overbeat as mixture may curdle.) The mixture will look too wet at first. Don't despair. Pretty soon it will start to get more of a whipped cream look. Cover and chill up to 2 hours (though you can use it immediately).

To assemble trifle:
Line of the bottom of your trifle dish with cake cubes, making sure you're covering the bottom while still leaving a tiny bit of wiggles room. Spoon about 2 Tb. of cranberries and a bit of the syrup over the cake cubes. Top the cake and cranberry layer with about 1 1/3 c. mascarpone cream, and repeat 3 more times, ending with a layer of cream. Sprinkle some more orange zest over the top, cover with plastic wrap (which means your trifle will have to stop just below the rim of your dish), and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

To serve, use a long spoon and dish it into bowls.