Skip to content

Trifle, a rags-to-riches dessert

December 9, 2009

(this is the full version of a piece of mine that appeared, abridged, in the Los Altos Town Crier‘s Dec. 9 Food and Wine section)

Trifle’s name betrays an original simplicity: something easily assembled, often from leftovers. But ask the average person what the name conjures, and they may describe a precious, elaborate Dickensian dessert: a glass bowl brimming with liquor-drenched cake, custard, and fruit, topped with a billow of whipped cream and sundry embellishments. This is the gem that ornaments my family’s holiday table each year.

What we have is a dish embroiled in a drama of taste. Since its appearance in the late 16th century, trifle has had a history convoluted enough and a composition protean enough to give culinary historians something to mull over.

By 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes writes of “[t]hat most wonderful object of domestic art called trifle . . . with its charming confusion of cream and cake and almonds and jam and jelly and wine and cinnamon and froth.

A confusion of ingredients, certainly. The cake layer, originally stale, may consist of pound cake, sponge cake (such as genoise), ladyfingers, crumbled macaroons or ratafia (almond) biscuits. Fortification may be supplied by sherry, port, madeira, white wine, brandy, rum, amaretto, cointreau or framboise. The embellishments (a trend started in the late 17th century) may include slivered almonds, candied fruit, fresh berries, silver and gold sugar balls, and other forms of loveliness.

And beware: the debates over ingredients and decorations are numerous and, in 19th century cookbooks and housewifery guides, take on moral implications: glacé cherries are déclassé, comfits vulgar, and so on. Perhaps because it was common and popular enough that everyone’s grandmother had her own recipe, people become rather shrill about, for example, whether the fruit should be canned, fresh, or appear in the sweet intensity of jam.

The issue is complicated by trifle’s motley band of oddly-named cousins: fool, syllabub, hedgehog tipsy cake. It’s enough to make one’s head spin without even the nip of sherry—or port or madeira, etc. ad infinitum. One could float for days on historical details about Mrs. Beeton et al, like the slivered almonds on a trifle’s snowy crest.

But for me, the greatest debate is about texture. And here I become as moralizing as Mrs. Beeton’s compatriots; it’s something I could nearly come to blows over. And again, we start with a seemingly simple premise.

Part of trifle’s aesthetic appeal comes from its layers of white and cream and (often) red, beautiful striations under a glistening blanket of cream and sprinkled decorations. And much has been made of the trifle bowl, a footed glass cylindrical thing, whose straight sides produce a stately, evenly-layered display. (It is, in fact, emblematic enough that the Culinary Historians of New York give a trifle bowl to the recipient of their Amelia Award for lifetime achievement in culinary history.)

But, I say, let not the layers be sharp striations, however striking.

A trifle’s layers should melt together amorously. If the cake isn’t luxuriously saturated with custard and tawny liquor; if the bright, tart-sweet berry juice hasn’t bled into the vanilla cream that is coaxing the dry cake pliable; if the berries don’t appear both tumbled and buoyed by soft pillows; if the whole confection doesn’t topple in an unctuous heap when spooned onto a plate—then, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t proper trifle.

In An Omlette and a Glass of Wine, food writer Elizabeth David states that, over time, trifle and its cousin desserts “were eventually amalgamated to make one glorious sticky mess.” And I say the mess—that charming confusion, that delicate dishevelment—is a must. It is part of the pleasure of trifle.

Some would disagree. These are the types who describe trifle as soggy. They might not appreciate it if they knew, but secretly I’m praying for their souls.

In volume 50 of Petits Propos Culinaires, Helen J. Saberi claims that “[t]rifles offer a rare combination of sensual and intellectual pleasures.” And to this I would add the pleasure of an aesthetic argument that leaves both winner and loser with delectable spoils of war.

For those in my camp, letting the dish rest overnight (minus the whipped cream) yields optimum unctuousness. As does using very dry cake. Remember that originally it would most likely have been stale. These are different times. If staleness doesn’t appeal, allow extra baking time.

My grandmother’s recipe, which I have known since I was small, is adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. It uses pound cake, stirred custard, sherry, berry preserves, and fresh strawberries.

Below is the recipe I’ve experimented with more recently.

Someday, I may make a hedgehog tipsy cake. Wine-soaked, tapered into rough hedgehog form, and almond-studded (for bristle-like texture), with a dollop of fruit at the snout to suggest foraged berries, the cake strikes me—rather like trifle—as a wonderful mix of the whimsical and the down-to-earth.


1 recipe genoise or other sponge cake, baked in a round cake pan, cooled, and cut into 1”x 2” rectangles.

3-4 T amaretto

1 recipe pastry cream

12 oz. each fresh blueberries and raspberries

1 pint heavy cream, whipped with 2 T sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Raspberries and slivered almonds for decoration

In a trifle bowl or large glass bowl, layer 1/3 each of cake, amaretto (drizzled), pastry cream and berries, in that order. Repeat layers twice more. Refrigerate, covered, overnight or at least 8 hours. Top with whipped cream and decorations.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. FG is me permalink
    December 13, 2009 11:49 pm

    You make it sound and look absolutely special. And the “roots” are fascinating as usual. I imagine that when you say fresh berries – frozen berries will do.

  2. six of us permalink
    December 13, 2009 11:53 pm

    Wow! it really looks good. All of us here are drooling.


  1. Pistachio macaroons « the roots of taste

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: