Trifle—Pleasing to the Palate, Enchanting to the Eye
The Trifle is a stunning dessert with its multiple layers that have so many colors, textures and flavors.
Trifle is the quintessential pudding that has graced British tables for centuries and was supposedly even vouched for by Charles Dickens. A traditional English trifle is easily the British number two pudding for Christmas, after Christmas (Plum) Pudding. There’s something frivolous yet decadent with all that custard, cream, fruit and sherry. This dessert is usually served at large gatherings as the typical trifle serves upwards of ten people.
There are various versions of a trifle recipe, some are quick, and easy, made using ready-made custard or custard made with custard powder. Or there is a traditional British trifle with cake, sherry, home-made custard and fruit. All delicious.
As kids, we grew up in British Colonial Rhodesia with the two favorite Christmas desserts: Christmas Pudding (Plum Pudding) and Trifle, so we feel very comfortable and familiar with them both. Now that I have my own family and we’ve created our own traditions, we seem to have moved away from the Plum Pudding and much more to the Trifle as our favorite. It’s easy to make, looks and tastes wonderful. It’s fun to make together with family members and is always a talking point at the table.
To Back-track a bit:
The word “Trifle” comes from the French word “trufle”, meaning something trite or whimsical, although this dessert is anything but trite.
Research indicates it evolved from a similar dessert known as a “fool” or “foole”, and originally the two names were used interchangeably. A “fool” is an English dessert generally made by mixing pureed fruit, whipped cream, sugar, and possibly a flavoring like rose water. “Foole” was first mentioned as a dessert in 1598 (together with trifle), although the origins of the famous gooseberry fool may date back even earlier. Why the word “fool” is used as the name of this fruit dessert is not clear.
The first trifles were simply 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 know today. Here is an example of a trifle recipe from 1852 by Frederick Bishop from “The Wife’s Own Book of Cookery” (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 in England at the time; Syllabub was milk or cream whipped with sugar, spirits, spices, and sometimes egg whites; Comfits were sugar-coated coriander or caraway seeds.)
The history of the trifle is also linked to the history of those special sponge finger biscuits. They are also known around the world as Boudoir biscuits (our favorite), ladyfingers, sponge biscuits, Naples biscuits, and Savoy biscuits.
Story of Ladyfingers biscuits;
“11th Century – The recipe, which has changed little in nine hundred years, dates from the House of Savoy in the eleventh century France. Historians seem to think that the recipe was carried throughout Europe by the marriages of the descendents of Bertha of Savoy (1051-1081) to the royalty of Europe.
18th Century – Folklore has it that Czar Peter the Great of Russia (1689-1725) and his wife, the peasant empress Catherine, so enjoyed Ladyfingers when visiting Louis XV of France, that they purchased the Baker and sent him immediately to Saint Petersburg.”
Supposedly, the name Boudoir biscuits comes from the word “Boudoir” (which means “a woman’s bedroom or private room” in French). The noble women of the French Court had tea and these biscuits in the boudoir.
Through the centuries, trifle has made its way into English literature, after Oliver Wendell Holmes called it, “That most wonderful object of domestic art.” For example, Dickens put it among his “glorious foods”, and very recently J. K. Rowling mentioned it in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. In the United States, this new delicacy became very popular with the plantation owners in the South.
So, these days, just what IS this trifle pudding?
Trifles are traditionally made in a large deep glass bowl so you can see all the layers. Many trifle recipes exist and there are very definite opinions as to what should and shouldn’t be used in a trifle. There does seem to be a consensus that a layer of cake should be on the bottom of a trifle, followed by some alcohol, fruit or jam, custard, whipped cream, and decorations. The disagreements begin when you discuss what type of cake, alcohol (wine, sherry, or liqueur), jelly, fruit (jam), custard, cream, and what decorations should be used. If you do not have a favorite trifle recipe there are many options as to how you want your trifle to look and taste.
1. To begin with, you can use various types of cake for the bottom layer. Most commonly Madeira cake, a sponge cake, pound cake, ladyfingers (Boudoir biscuits), or macaroons are used. Sometimes the cake is split in half and a layer of jam, preserves, or fruit puree is used to sandwich the two pieces of cake together.
2. Pour or brush some alcohol over the cake layer. Basically any alcohol is okay but it is best if the one used complements the other flavors in the trifle. Sherry, white wine, rum, liqueurs (Grand Marnier, Amaretto, Framboise, Frangelico, Kirsch) are some favorites. The amount of alcohol 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.)
3. At this point, some people also add a jelly (jello in USA), either cold but not set or just beginning to set. The flavor should complement the flavor of the fruits used.
4. Next comes the fruit layer. Here again you have choices. You can use cut up fruit (like berries, peaches, pears, kiwi), 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 jelly or puree to intensify the fruit flavor.
5. Next comes the custard layer. The classic English trifle usually contains custard followed by a layer of whipped cream. You can use home-made custard made with eggs, or custard made with a custard powder and boiled milk.
6. Then comes whipped cream on top, and the finishing touch is to decorate the trifle with toppings such as fruit, crushed Amaretti cookies, toasted nuts, candied fruits, shaved chocolate.
The size of your trifle bowl and the thickness of the layers will determine whether you need a second layer of the ingredients 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).
Cover the assembled trifle and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours to allow the flavors to mingle.
Some say that traditional trifles do not contain jelly. The Scots have a similar dish to trifle, Tipsy Laird (which means “drunken lord”), made with Drambuie or whisky. In the Southern US, a variant of trifle is known as Tipsy Cake and in South Africa as Tipsy Tart.
Most important: Lots of jelly and fresh whipped cream
Layer in the following order:
Boudoir biscuits (Ladyfingers)
Sherry or port poured onto the biscuits
Fruit—frozen raspberries, or tinned mandarin oranges are good (or both!)
Half-set jelly (lemon flavor is a favorite, or raspberry)
Custard, the creamy egg variety
At time of serving, put a thick layer of whipped cream on top.
Decorate with fresh fruit (kiwi, strawberry slices), chocolate sprinkles, and toasted almonds.
I can’t wait for the next trifle at Christmas!