R. John Robertson
Assistant Dean for Instructional Design and Emerging Technologies

THE HOLIDAYS IN IRELAND, north and south, provide a happy respite from dark and dreary winters, bringing weeks of cheery festivities, happy family reunions, and musical celebrations. Christmas events stretch from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on Jan. 6. A single candle lights the largest windows of homes, welcoming strangers — along with Mary and Joseph — to warmth and safety. Many Irish families observe Christmas Eve by attending church.

The Christmas Day meal might feature smoked salmon, turkey, ham, soup, and a sweet trifle for dessert.

One Irish distinctive is St. Stephen’s Day on Dec. 26 (called “Boxing Day” in the United Kingdom), celebrated with horse races and soccer matches (properly known as “football” if you’re European).

Trifle is a popular Irish Christmas dessert made with layers of pudding and cake and fresh fruit.

In some towns, young men and women dress up in costumes and go from house to house on St. Stephen’s Day in the “Wren Boys Procession,” carrying a replica of the legendary wren that gave away St. Stephen’s hiding place to his pursuers. On Jan. 6, Epiphany is celebrated as Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas, when women cease their household labors and let the men do all the work.

JOHN: I remember Christmas as a time of rest, when work and universities closed, and we returned to our parents’ home. On Christmas, we had breakfast together and opened stockings and gifts. There was always a debate: presents before church, or after? My mother insisted upon gifts after church, but she often lost the battle, and we’d open our presents before leaving the house.

It was a chaotic scene, nothing like the orderly present exchanges I’ve seen in the United States — everyone grabbing presents, handing them around, and tearing them open. At church there’d be a light sermon and a brass band, and we’d return home for a multicourse meal that could take hours to finish.

I recall smoked salmon, seafood cocktails, vegetable soup, and turkey dinner with stuffing. The desserts were full of alcohol — trifle and Christmas pudding and Christmas cake. We’d eat big dinners all week long, visiting our friends and family.

Christmas Trifle
Servings: 8 trifles


1/3 cup/65 grams granulated sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons/20 grams cornstarch
Pinch of fine sea salt
4 egg yolks
1 cup/240 milliliters heavy cream
3/4 cup/180 milliliters whole milk
Optional flavorings: 1 teaspoon orange or lemon zest, 1 cinnamon stick, or
6 cardamom pods
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups berries or 3 oranges (a mix of blood oranges and navel oranges is pretty)
1 to 2 teaspoons granulated sugar

About 6 to 8 ladyfingers (also called savoiardi or boudoir biscuits, or use sponge cake or poundcake, if desired)
Berry jam or orange marmalade
1/4 cup sherry, Madeira, dessert wine, brandy or orange juice, plus more as needed
1 cup/240 milliliters heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Sliced almonds, candied citrus peel, crumbled amaretti or berries, for garnish (optional)


Make the custard: In a large bowl, combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add egg yolks and whisk until smooth.

In a medium saucepan, heat cream, milk, and any of the optional flavorings over medium heat until simmering.

Slowly whisk 1/2 cup hot cream mixture into yolk mixture until well mixed. Whisking egg mixture constantly, slowly pour in remaining cream. Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and place it over medium-low heat.

Cook custard, stirring continuously especially around the bottom and edges of the pot, until the custard has thickened enough to mound on the spoon, five to 10 minutes. Don’t let it come to a boil, but a few simmering bubbles is fine. If it starts to curdle at any point, remove pot from the heat and whisk it intensely. It should smooth out.

Once the custard is thick, scrape it into bowl, whisk in vanilla, and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto its surface. Let the custard cool for at least 30 minutes. At this point, custard can be refrigerated for up to three days, or used to assemble the trifle.

Pluck out cinnamon stick or cardamom pods, if using, just before assembling trifle.

Prepare the fruit: If using berries, put them in a bowl, sprinkle with sugar to taste, and use a fork to mash them. If using oranges, supreme them: Cut the tops and bottoms off each one, squeezing the juice from the severed pieces into a bowl. Using a paring knife, cut the peel and all the white pith off the fruit. Working over the bowl to catch the juices, slice the segments away from the membrane, letting fruit fall into the bowl. It’s OK if the segments fall apart; you’re going to break them up anyway. When all the segments are cut out of the membranes, squeeze the membranes over the bowl to release as much of the juice as possible. Sprinkle oranges with sugar, to taste, and, using your hands, break the segments up into pieces. You want a pulpy, juicy mix in the bowl. There should be a lot of liquid. Let oranges or the berries macerate for 20 minutes.

To assemble the trifle, spread the ladyfingers on one side with a thick layer of jam or marmalade. Put the ladyfingers, jam-side down, in the bottom of a medium (6- to 8-cup) trifle dish or any other serving bowl or dish (or use individual dishes, cups, or glasses). You want to cover the bottom completely and, if you are using a bowl, go a little bit up the sides; break up the ladyfingers if needed to make them fit.

Sprinkle sherry (or whatever liquid you are using) over the ladyfingers, making sure they are well moistened. Be generous: You don’t want any dry bits.

Spoon fruit and all their juices over ladyfingers. Top with custard. If you like a higher cake-to-custard ratio, you can break up a few more ladyfingers and scatter them on top of the custard, then drizzle with more sherry. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 24 hours.

When ready to serve, using an electric mixer or a whisk, beat the cream and powdered sugar until fluffy; it should hold a light peak. Spoon whipped cream on top of trifle and garnish as you like. Serve immediately. (Leftovers will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for two or three days.)

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