No mere trifle: Sweet and savory layered recipes give summer a playful mouthfeel

Summer Trifle Salad Built layers savory cornbread, shredded romaine lettuce, sweet corn, mini peppers, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS/Steve Mellon)
Summer Trifle Salad Built layers savory cornbread, shredded romaine lettuce, sweet corn, mini peppers, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS/Steve Mellon)

Trifles are terrific. They don't require hard-to-find ingredients and draw lots of accolades for barely any work. They look the part whether it's a laid-back family get-together or a soiree on the patio decked with string lights.

We are not just talking about the sweet British import with layers of spongy cake, jam, fruits and custard. There also is the savory trifle, which has more oomph than a mere layered salad of lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and grated cheddar cheese. The bread at the bottom makes the salad a lot heartier, too.

A mixed vegetable trifle is more about construction than cooking. It will embrace just about any type of raw summer vegetable, which is sliced, diced or grated and assembled in a clear glass bowl over a layer of bread and drizzled with a delicious dressing.

The bread is the Atlas of the trifle, shouldering the multiple layers above it. It can be homemade croutons tossed in butter or flavored with garlic and herbs. Or you can tear flatbreads like focaccia, naan or pita into pieces to cover the bottom of the bowl. My favorite is cornbread. It can have a wee bit of sugar or be studded with jalapenos for a more punchy note.

There is no set formula for the vegetables, but it's good to have a range of colors and textures. Any sort of greens will work, but I prefer something crisp like shredded romaine or iceberg or peppery baby arugula.

To make an elegant and pretty trifle, layer the greens with kernels from fresh cooked corn, thinly sliced radishes and cucumbers, pitted olives, juicy cherry tomatoes and a mix of colorful bell peppers. Add in herbs like cilantro, dill or basil, and no one will call it boring.

For protein, consider halved hard-cooked eggs, pancetta cubes, sliced salami or cooked bacon strips between vegetable layers. If you want to continue on a vegetarian route, use canned pinto, garbanzo or black beans that are drained, rinsed and tossed gently with salt and ground cumin. You also could add a layer of crumbled feta or goat cheese or cubes of mozzarella or grated cheddar or Monterey Jack if you are a cheese fanatic.

A vegetable trifle without dressing would be like a fruit trifle without custard. It's just not right. Unlike custard, the dressing should not be thick and sit on the top or even between the layers. Instead, it should be slightly runny so it can dribble down through the layers to the bread at the bottom. Herb-laden green dressings are wonderful, and so are the orangish ones that get their kick from paprika or Sriracha. But creamy white or colorless olive oil-lemon juice dressings are fine, too.

A few dressing suggestions that take under 10 minutes to make:

◼️ Buttermilk dressing: Whisk together ¾ cup buttermilk, 1/3 cup parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon hot sauce, ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon onion powder and 1 tablespoon fresh chopped chives. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

◼️ Chipotle cream sauce: In a blender, combine 4 or 5 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (from a 7-ounce can), ¼ cup whole milk, 1 teaspoon ground cumin and ½ teaspoon paprika. Blend until the peppers are pureed. Add 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice and 2 cups sour cream, salt to taste and blend until smooth.

◼️ Garlic mayo dressing: Smash 3 cloves garlic with a knife, slip off paper skins and finely mince the garlic. Transfer to a bowl and whisk with 1/3 cup mayonnaise and 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice. Slowly add ¼ cup olive oil and ¼ cup canola oil and whisk again. Add ½ cup crumbled feta cheese and combine. Season with salt.

◼️ Balsamic vinaigrette: Whisk together ½ cup avocado oil or any other neutral oil, ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning, ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes and 1 teaspoon garlic powder. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

◼️ Basil-dill cream sauce: Combine 1 cup chopped basil leaves and ¼ cup chopped dill in a blender. Add 1/3 cup yogurt, ¼ cup mayonnaise, 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, ¼ cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons ground white pepper and 1 smashed clove garlic. Season with salt to taste and blend until smooth.

This salad looks dramatic when served in a trifle or large clear glass bowl. If some of the produce are from your garden, you have one more reason to brag. The salad can be assembled the night before. Just cover with a plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Summer Trifle Salad

  • 1 small red onion
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 batch Savory Cornbread, cut into wedges (recipe follows)
  • 4 cups packed shredded romaine lettuce, divided use
  • 2 ½ cups cooked corn kernels
  • 3 cups sliced mini peppers
  • 4 mini cucumbers, sliced into coins
  • 16 ounces cherry tomatoes
  • Desired dressing, for serving

Dice the red onion into small cubes. Dissolve sugar in a bowl of cold water. Add onion, making sure the cubes are covered with water. Let them sit for 15 minutes. Drain the water and place diced onions on paper towels and pat them dry. Set them aside.

In a trifle or glass bowl, place the cornbread wedges in a single layer, cutting pieces to fill the gaps.

Top with 1 cup of shredded romaine lettuce. Evenly spread the corn kernels on top of the lettuce followed by a layer of the diced onion. Top with another cup of shredded lettuce. Arrange the sliced pepper along the side of the bowl, alternating colors, and spread the rest evenly on top of the lettuce. Add the third cup of shredded lettuce on top of the peppers. Arrange cucumber slices along the side of the bowl and spread the rest evenly on top of the lettuce. Add the last cup of shredded lettuce on top of the cucumbers and lightly press down. Arrange cherry tomatoes on top of the lettuce as the final layer.

Serve with your desired dressing.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

■  ■  ■

The question of whether cornbread should be sweet or savory often leads to spirited discussions. But for a salad, the savory version is the definite choice. This one really boosts the flavor with cream corn, pickled jalapenos, fresh cilantro and cheddar cheese.

Savory Cornbread

  • 1/3 cup canola oil, plus more for coating pan
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 (14.75-ounce) can cream-style corn
  • ¼ cup diced pickled jalapenos
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallot
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 ¼ cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided use

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8- or 9-inch baking pan or deep pie plate with oil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together cornmeal, cream-style corn, jalapenos, shallot and garlic salt.

Add 1/3 cup oil, the eggs and cilantro and whisk again until fully combined. Add ½ cup of the cheddar cheese and gently stir.

Pour into the prepared pan and top with remaining cheese. Bake for 33 to 40 minutes or until a wooden tester inserted near the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs.

Let the cornbread cool and then slice it into wedges.

  photo  Mixed Berry Trifle (Democrat-Gazette file photo)  Use any combination of fresh berries you like in this sweet trifle, which can be made with instant pudding or homemade pastry cream.

Mixed Berry Trifle

  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • 6 to 8 cups cubed cake such as pound cake, angel food cake or spongecake, divided use
  • ½ cup berry jam or jelly, warmed to thin, divided use
  • 2 cups prepared vanilla pudding OR 2 cups chilled Pastry Cream, divided use (recipe follows)
  • 1 pint blueberries, raspberries or blackberries or a combination, plus more for optional garnish
  • 1 pound strawberries, hulled and sliced

In a large bowl, whip cream to firm peaks; set aside.

In the bottom of a trifle bowl or other large, deep dish, layer half of the cake pieces. Spoon a small bit of jam over the cake, then top with half of the pudding or pastry cream, followed by half of the fruit and half of the whipped cream. Repeat layers. Cover and chill at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours before serving. Garnish with additional berries just before serving.

Makes 12 to 16 servings.

[Video not showing above? Click here to watch:]

Pastry Cream

  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • Pinch salt
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a saucepan, whisk together the granulated sugar, cornstarch and salt. Whisk in the egg yolks, whisking until completely smooth. Whisk in ½ cup of the milk, whisking until completely smooth. Stir in the remaining milk. Place pan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly with a heat-safe spatula, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as you stir, until the mixture thickens — this will happen suddenly once the mixture reaches about 170 degrees. Immediately remove the pan from heat and stir in the vanilla. Press a sheet of plastic wrap to the surface of the custard and let cool to lukewarm at room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Mixed Berry Trifle recipe from Democrat-Gazette Food editor Kelly Brant

Upcoming Events