by Kate Merena

Thanksgiving at my parents’ house dawns cold and quiet, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. People start arriving before noon, and the last stragglers leave the party after midnight. I grew up in a huge Catholic family where one generation melds into the next, and everyone is invited over for the holidays. Our parties sparkle with teasing and the laughter of small children, and there is always enough food for twice the amount of guests.

My parents like to host the holiday parties, despite the intimidating amount of necessary preparation. They have been hosting Thanksgiving for so long that the day moves along like a Broadway show — a lot of behind-the-scenes work that makes the performance look spectacular. There are some things that look like they were more work than they were. Not the turkey, of course! But the dessert is a convenient, delicious finish that leaves Mom with enough time to join the party.

My mother’s father was a baker, and Mom inherited his love for the process of making concoctions out of sugar, flour, and eggs. My grandfather could simultaneously make a perfect pie crust, cinnamon rolls, and meat stuffing, and somehow still instruct me and my cousins as he skillfully prepared these dishes. My mom certainly learned her time management skills from him (as well as her tendency to get flour everywhere when baking). She has the timing down to a science.

Though everyone helps out with the Thanksgiving cooking, Mom is the orchestrating force behind our gorgeous holiday meals. She loves rich desserts and likes to experiment with new recipes. One of her favorites is a layered Trifle which is the first thing we all go for when dessert is served. It even beats out the homemade pumpkin and squash pies!

Mom’s trifle can be made in stages so it’s easy to fit it into a busy family schedule, and everyone in the family can help out with the assembly. The custard is the most time-consuming part of the recipe. However, because it doesn’t solidify completely, it can be made a few days in advance and stored in an airtight container in the fridge.


Rich Custard

¾ cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 cups of milk and cream, mixed

4 well-beaten egg yolks

2 tablespoons butter

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla

1 cup whipped cream

In the top of a double boiler, mix dry ingredients and stir in milk and cream. Cook uncovered over boiling water for 8 minutes; uncover and cook for 10 minutes. Add eggs and butter. Cook 2 minutes, then add vanilla. Cool completely and fold in whipped cream.


The cake is best when baked the night before, to ensure that it cools enough to be put together with the custard, jam, and whipped cream. This also leaves the oven free on Thanksgiving morning for the turkey. We cool the cake uncovered on the counter overnight.


Yellow Cake

2 cups cake flour

1 ¼ cups sugar

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup soft shortening

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg


Preheat over to 350 degrees. Mix dry ingredients. Add shortening, 2/3 cup milk, and vanilla. Beat 2 minutes on medium speed, scraping sides and bottom of bowl to ensure thorough mixing. Add the remaining milk and the egg, and beat for two more minutes, scraping the bowl frequently. Pour batter into two 8-inch, round cake pans. Bake about 30 minutes, or until knife comes out clean.


On Thanksgiving morning we assemble the rest of the recipe. It’s simple enough that the younger kids can help out (as long as they promise to keep their fingers out of the bowls). The kids love to feel like they are a part of the preparation.


Susan’s Trifle

Line the bottom of a deep dish with Yellow Cake. Add a layer of canned Raspberry or Cherry pie filling. Top this layer with Rich Custard. Repeat layers until the dish is filled, then cover with fresh whipped cream. Garnish with red sugar sprinkles if you’re making it for me.


Mom serves her Trifle in a glass dish, to show off the festive gold, yellow, and red layers. By the time she sets it out for us to enjoy, the house is filled with the voices of family and friends. The teakettle whistles and we bustle around clearing dinner plates. Friends come in with wine and pecan pie. We fill our plates with dessert and gather in the kitchen, laughing late into the evening. No one even notices that, yet again, there won’t be any trifle left for tomorrow.