Irish-American Dining: Irish Bisque and Irish Trifle

"I grew up on the Irish trifle and the children like it too." -- Mrs. Martin O'Sullivan, Boston Record American, 1971

“I grew up on the Irish trifle and the children like it too.” — Mrs. Martin O’Sullivan, Boston Record American, 1971

If we are to discuss the American recipes called Irish bisque and Irish trifle, we need to clear up a few things first. And, first of all, it is very confusing that the food is called “bisque.”

Bisque is, of course, a French food, a spicy broth of lobster, crab, shrimp or crayfish. Since the creatures used for the meal are typically too imperfect to be made another way, bisque traditionally including the ground up shells of the poor crustaceans, uncleaned, and previously simmered in wine, which sounds less like a food than a nonsensical stanza from one of the mock turtle’s poems in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

There is a recipe for Irish bisque that started making the rounds as far back as 1916; I first find it in the Macon Telegraph, but it was widely republished. It was a St. Patrick’s Day recipe, and true to Irish-American cooking of the era, it had nothing to do with Ireland, nor anything to do with the food it was named for; it is, in fact, a dessert! It was, however, green-colored, and that was enough. The recipe is as follows:

IRISH BISQUE — Bring one quart of new milk to a boil, dissolving in it one pint of granulated sugar. When this mixture is cool, add a quart of whipped cream, a teaspoon of vanilla and freeze until it is the consistency of mush. Remove the dasher, add wine glass of sherry, and a coffee cup full of macaroons ground very fine. Color to the right shade of green with vegetable coloring matter, pack and set away to harden. This is an excellent substitution for pistachio, the green ice cream offered by caterers.

I can’t say it sounds entirely appealing, but they had me at “add wine glass of sherry.”

In fact, the presence of the alcohol suggests this is a variation of an actual popular dessert in Ireland, the trifle, which is a thick custard with fruits or nuts and whipped cream.

The Irish trifle made it to America at least as far back as 1931, when the San Francisco Chronicle published a version of it credited to Umberto Dean, the chef at Cafe Marquard. His recipe was simple and seemed constructed out of leftover desserts:

Line a dish with strips of stale sponge cake or lady fingers; put in a layer of rich custard, then a few spoonfuls of raspberry jam, pieces of stale fruit cake or nuts, if preferred, then another layer of custard with a second layer of jam, cake or nuts. Put a heavy layer of whipped cream on top and garnish with cherries. Macaroons may be used instead of fruit cake. Serve very cold. Flabor with sherry or brandy as desired.

Duncan Hines himself offered a recipe for trifle in 1953, crediting it to an Irish-American friend who recalled the trifle of her ancestors. It must be said, the version Duncan Hines come sup with does not sound authentically Irish, but typically American, consisting largely of dumping packets of premade desserts on top of each other. His version:

For six servings you will need a jelly roll, some raspberry jam, a cup of sliced almonds, a wine glass of sherry, 1/2 cup of thin custard and 1/2 cup of whipped cream.

Choose a deep bowl that will be pretty enough to serve from and put in a layer of sliced jelly roll. Spread with jam and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Repeat until about an inch from the top of the bowl. Pour a wine glass of sherry over the cake and let it stand until it has soaked into the cake.

Make a thin custard — you can use 1/2 package of vanilla pudding mixture — and pour over the cake. (Thin custard, beat 1 whole egg in the top of a double boiler, blend in 1 tablespoon sugar, a pinch of salt, milk. Cook over simmering, not boiling water, stirring constantly. When custard coats the spoon, remove from heat.) Refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, top with 1/2 cup unsweetened whipped cream and decorate with sliced Maraschino cherries and angelica.

Angelica is an herb of the carrot family whose roots and fruits furnish the oil used as flavoring for liqueurs and as a perfume and whose leaf-stalks may be candied. It is the candied stalk that is used for this dish.

There were variations: Patricia Murphy published a recipe in in 1964 that included instant coffee powder and used green Maraschino cherries. The Boston Record American had a variation in 1971 that involved dumping in a canned fruit cocktail. The Oregonian added a banana, that most Irish of foods, in 1979.

And, foodie though I am, I am loathe to offer any recommendations that will detract from the essential American-ness of these recipes, the act of taking packages of sweet stuff and dumping it atop sherry-soaked old dessert cakes, although obviously the recipe would be improved by hand-making the various ingredients. Martha Rose Shulman, writing for the New York Times, suggested handmade crème anglaise instead of custard and berry compote rather than jam, and Julianne Glatz in the Illinois Times suggested using Irish whiskey and not sherry on the cake. Both seem like fine suggestions to me.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.