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DESSERT LOOKS COMPLEX, BUT IT'S A TRIFLE

This year, my house is the gathering place before we head out to see the Fourth of July fireworks. That means dessert to feed a crowd.

I want something a bit fancy, yet something I know my desperate holiday schedule can handle. Enter my new favorite dessert: the trifle.

A trifle is a layered concoction of cake, pudding, fruit and whipped topping that is perfect for a large crowd on a steamy July night. But what I like best about it is that it's all do-ahead. In fact, a trifle must be made ahead to allow the flavors to blend and the cake to moisten.

As long as you have a large glass bowl, you can make our recipe for Red, White and Blue Trifle in just 20 minutes. A trifle dish makes the most impressive presentation with its straight sides and pedestal stand, but before I owned one, I used everything from a small punch bowl to a clear glass salad bowl. If you're interested in purchasing a trifle dish to add to your desperate dessert arsenal, they're available from kitchen stores and large department stores starting at about $20.

When you're feeding dessert to a crowd and you want to impress (but not kill yourself in the meantime), try a trifle. Its simple beauty is nothing to trifle with.

RED, WHITE AND BLUE TRIFLE

1 frozen pound cake (16 ounces)

1/4 cup cream sherry

1 pound fresh strawberries

1/4 cup sugar

1 package (3.4 ounces) instant vanilla pudding

2 cups low-fat milk (for making instant pudding)

1 pound fresh blueberries

2 cups reduced-fat whipped topping

1. Cut the cake into 1-inch slices, and then cut each slice into 1-inch cubes. Place the cubes in the bottom of a trifle bowl or other glass bowl with a 16-cup capacity. Drizzle the sherry over the cake and set aside.

2. Remove about 2 cups of the smallest strawberries and reserve them for a garnish. Puree the remaining strawberries in a food processor and add the sugar. Pour the pureed strawberries over the cake.

3. In a 2-quart bowl, prepare the instant pudding according to the package directions, and pour it over the strawberries. Top with the blueberries.

4. Spread the whipped topping over the blueberries, making sure the topping meets the edges of the bowl. Garnish with the reserved strawberries. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, and up to 12 hours, before serving.

5. To serve, spoon the trifle into small bowls or dessert cups. Serves 8 to 12.

Start to finish: 20 minutes, plus at least 4 hours unattended chilling time.

Note: You can substitute orange juice for the cream sherry, if desired.

Approximate nutritional values per serving: 280 calories (31 percent from fat), 10 g fat (6 g saturated), 44 mg cholesterol, 4 g protein, 44 g carbohydrates, 3 g dietary fiber, 277 mg sodium.

Send us desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; or e-mail: ddinnersaol.com.

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