Perfect trifle

Trifle is one of those classic English deserts that is a must-have at big family parties or traditional celebrations.  Although it is a cold, chilled desert, English people adore trifle at any time of the year and it is an important part of any Christmas celebrations too.

Ranking alongside apple pie and strawberries and cream, trifle is a great part of England´s food heritage. In fact, the earliest recipe has been discovered dating back to 1596 in a book called "The good housewife's Jewell."  At first, the term trifle just referred to a thick cream, latter custard, fruit and alcohol soaked cake were added to create the dish that generations have known and loved.

Every housewife has her own favorite recipe. Mine was handed down by my grandmother and begins with a base of home-made jammy swiss roll which has been moistened with a glug of sweet sherry, topped by a thin layer of tinned raspberries with all the juice oozing out. This delightful mix is sealed with a layer of shining red jelly.

Moving on to the next layer, we now add a luscious layer of pale yellow custard. This is topped with whipped cream and it should be double cream, preferably organic that has been home-whipped.

These days, trifle has a very retro feel, but it is one desert that no classic English cookery book likes to overlook. Let´s look in more detail at the ingredients of the perfect trifle.

A sponge base

Special sponge fingers called boudoir biscuits are often called for in recipes. These soak up the fruit or alcohol juices, but do not get too soggy. Amaretti biscuits are also popular for their ability to retain a crunch. Otherwise, a good quality sponge cake broken into smaller pieces can be used, or a jam-filled swiss roll for extra sweetness! Most trifles demand that the sponge or biscuit is soaked in a sweet alcohol such as port, sherry or Madeira. The people of Scotland have their own type of trifle, called Tipsy Laird, which means “drunken lord” and has a much higher level of alcohol than its English counterpart. Trifle in Scotland is typically made with Drambuie or whiskey.

A fruity layer

Some trifle recipes might use fruit juice or fruit puree as a non-alcoholic substitute, but in any event, a layer of chopped or stewed fruit likes raspberries or strawberries is usually placed over the sponge. Tinned raspberries are perfect, because they have been slightly heated to release the tasty juice. One of trifle´s special qualities is that it is a very adaptable desert and you can find recipes finding just about every fruit under the sun, including tropical trifles made with fruits like mango, passion fruit and pineapple.

The addition of jelly at this point makes for a good set and gives a lovely smooth texture. There are essentially two ways it can be made: either use a sheets of gelatin to set a home-made fruit puree or resort to shop bought jelly cubes – the latter can easily be enlivened by substituting fruit juice for a little of the water. Traditionally there are two favorite flavors in trifle: strawberry and raspberry, but if exotic fruits are used there is no reason why the jelly should not compliment these.

Adding the custard

Custard is a traditional sweet desert sauce that is used to accompany just about every English pudding. In trifle, it is thickened to just hold its shape when cut through with a spoon and forms the next layer above the sponge and fruit. Custard can easily be made from the powdered corn flour mix that is sold in jars – Bird´s custard powder – is a world famous brand. Proud cooks though probably prefer to make their own custard from a base of full-cream organic milk, egg yolk, and caster sugar and vanilla pods. It might take a bit longer but this method is sure to give the best taste.

Whipped cream

The topping for a perfect trifle is one element of the dish that never varies. It is always whipped double cream which has been slightly sweetened. This is not a desert that appreciates a spray of artificial foam from a can. The quality of English cream is fantastic because the countryside is so well-suited to dairy farming. All that lush green grass beneath a drizzly gray sky! The final layer of cream creates a smooth white concoction which is finished by a sprinkling of grated chocolate, glace cherries, almond slivers or “hundreds and thousands.” The latter are tiny shreds of colored candy which are used as cake decorations and are much loved by children on top of iced cakes and pastries.

These basic ingredients can create hundreds of variations and trifle is a great dish to experiment with. Because all the ingredients are so delicious in their own right, it is very difficult to go wrong and spoil this desert.