There’s a funny story behind this trifle—well, actually, a fortunate accident. I was getting ready to frost a chocolate cake when I dropped it on the counter and it broke into several pieces. My still delicious but no longer very attractive cake needed a new and creative plan. Luckily, inspiration struck—I decided to turn my cake into a trifle.
Cake, fruit, syrup, and whipped cream—that’s all there is to it. In England, trifles are traditionally made with slices of sherry-soaked sponge cake, which are spread with jam and vanilla pastry cream and then layered in a large bowl. But the basic idea of layering cake and fillings in a bowl is really just a jumping off point for many variations. My favorite is a Black Forest trifle—a layered twist on the famous cake that combines cherries and chocolate—which starts with a simple chocolate cake. I brush the cake with a mixture of the syrup from canned cherries and cherry brandy—this really intensifies the flavor of the trifle. A generous amount of lofty whipped cream and the cherries themselves serve as the other layers of the trifle.
Assemble in a glass bowl, spreading each layer to the edge. Once you’ve made the components of the trifle, putting it together is simply a matter of brushing the cake with the syrup and layering it, along with the cherries and whipped cream, in a pretty bowl. A glass bowl is always a good choice for serving, because it looks festive and allows guests to see the different trifle layers. I use a classic trifle bowl but a regular 2 1/2- to 3-quart bowl is fine. Be sure to spread each layer to the edge of the bowl; this way, the layers and colors will be clearly visible. The white whipped cream looks stunning against the dark chocolate cake.
For the best flavor, make it ahead. A trifle benefits from being prepared in advance; this allows the flavors to come together. So make your trifle a few hours ahead and leave it in the refrigerator to rest. You can also make the cake and syrup up to a day ahead. Just wrap the cake and keep it at room temperature, and cover and refrigerate the syrup. Serving a trifle to a crowd is easy. Set out the bowl with a big spoon and let your guests help themselves. Digging through all those layers and taking as much as you want is about as fun as dessert can get.
We taste-tested frozen, jarred, and canned cherries to see which had the best flavor, and the canned version won hands down. Look for cherries labeled “in heavy syrup” or “in extra heavy syrup”. (Some canned cherries come in fruit juice concentrate, which doesn’t have quite the same flavor or texture and will give you a different result.)