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English Trifle


 The Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines 'trifle' as "a matter, affair, or circumstance of trivial importance or significance."

'Trifle' is from the Middle English word 'trufle' which comes from the Old French word 'trufe' (or trufle) which means something of little importance.

What a stunning dessert the trifle makes with its multiple layers that delight our senses with so many colors, textures and flavors.  The English have enjoyed this dessert for over three centuries now.  Although the dictionary defines 'trifle' as being something insignificant, this dessert is anything but.  Its beginnings were humble as the first trifles simply consisted of a mixture of boiled cream and a few other ingredients.   It wasn't until the mid 18th century that the trifle started to evolve into what we have today.   This is a trifle recipe by Frederick Bishop from "The Wife's Own Book of Cookery", 1852  (quoted from Elizabeth David's 'An Omelette and a Glass of Wine')

 'Cover the bottom of the dish with Naples biscuits, and macaroons broken in halves, wet with brandy and white wine poured over them, cover them with patches of raspberry jam, fill the dish with a good custard, then whip up a syllabub, drain the froth on a sieve, put it on the custard and strew comfits over all.' 

(Naples biscuits was the name given to sponge fingers at the time.) (Syllabub being a milk or cream that is whipped with sugar, spirits, spices and sometimes egg whites.) (Comfits are sugar-coated coriander or caraway seeds.)

Trifles are traditionally made in a large deep bowl so you can see all the layers.   Many trifle recipes exist and there are very definite opinions as to what should and should not be used in a trifle.  There does seem to be a consensus that a layer of cake is on the bottom of the trifle, followed by spirits, fruit or jam, custard, whipped cream, and decorations.  The disagreements begin when you discuss what type of cake, spirits (wine, sherry, or liqueur) , fruit (jam), custard, cream, and what decorations should be used.  If you do not have a favorite trifle recipe than you have lots of choices as to how you want your trifle to look and taste. 

To begin with, various types of cake can be used for the bottom layer.  Most commonly a sponge cake, pound cake, ladyfingers, or macaroons are used.  Sometimes the cake is split in half and a layer of jam, preserves, or puree is used to sandwich the two pieces of cake together.  Once the cake layer is placed on the bottom of the bowl, alcohol is poured or brushed over the cake.  Feel free to use whatever spirits you like but it is best if the spirit used complements the other flavors in the trifle.  Sherry, white wine, rum, liqueurs (Grand Marnier, Amaretto, Framboise, Frangelico, Kirsch) are some common ones.  The amount is dependent on how much liquid the cake will absorb and how strong an alcohol taste you want.  (Cakes that are a few days old will absorb more alcohol than a freshly made cake.)  Oftentimes I leave the alcohol out (the purist would balk at this) as my children do not like the taste (no matter how little I use).  Next comes the fruit layer.  Here again you have choices.  You can use cut up fruit (like berries, peaches, pears, kiwi, etc.), a puree (raspberry, strawberry, blackberry), jam or preserves, or a combination of these.  If you are using fresh fruit it is nice to have a layer of like-flavored jam or puree to intensify the fruit flavor.

Next comes the custard layer.  The classic English trifle usually contains custard followed by a layer of whipped cream.  However, an alternative is to use a pastry cream instead of the custard.  Other recipes replace the custard altogether with a cream filling that can include things like lemon curd, mascarpone cheese, eggs, whipping cream, spirits, lemon juice, or chocolate.   Depending on what ingredients are used in the cream filling layer, you may not want or need to top this with a layer of whipped cream.

The size of your trifle bowl and the thickness of the layers will determine whether you need a second layer of cake, spirits, fruit, custard, and cream to fill the bowl.  Don't worry if the layers mix together as this is the way trifles are supposed to look (i.e. the lines between the layers can be uneven and even mix together).  The finishing touch is to decorate the trifle with toppings such as;  fruit, crushed Amaretti cookies, toasted nuts, candied fruits, shaved chocolate, to name a few.  (Note:  Crushed Amaretti cookies are sometimes used as a layer in the trifle, as well as for  decorating the top.)

The assembled trifle is covered and placed in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours to allow the flavors to mingle.  This dessert is usually served at large gatherings as the typical trifle serves upwards of ten people.

The recipes I have included here are for individual trifles.  This is obviously breaking from traditional but I wanted a recipe that could be made at any time, not just for large gatherings.  Don't be afraid to make up your own trifle recipe, using whatever cake, fruit, jam, and cream you have around.  A simple trifle may be made from a layer of sponge cake, followed by a layer of raspberry preserves, maybe some fresh raspberries, that is topped off with heavy whipping cream (maybe whipped with a little mascarpone cheese).  Don't be afraid to use your imagination and improvise.  Use individual glasses or, for larger groups, a pretty glass bowl, as you want to see all those beautiful layers.

TIP:  If pressed for time use a store baked cake (sponge, pound, or ladyfingers) and Amaretti cookies.

Strawberry and Lemon Curd Trifle

Blueberry Trifle


Berry, Mary. Desserts and Confections. London: A Dorling Kindersley Book, 1991.

David, Elizabeth. An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books Viking, Viking Penguin Inc. First American Edition 1985.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Davidson, Alan and Saberi, Helen. The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002.

Friberg, Bo. The Professional Pastry Chef (Third Edition). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996.

Lawson, Nigella. How to be a Domestic Goddess. New York: Hyperion, 2001.

Luchetti, Emily. Stars Desserts. Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

Saberi, Helen and Davidson, Alan. Trifle. Devon: Prospect Books. 2001.