“Take three Naples biscuits … make a custard of a pint of cream and five eggs and put over them. Then make a whipt syllabub as light as possible to cover the whole. The higher it is piled, the handsomer it looks.” — Martha Lloyd’s Household Book
Trifle is a signature British pudding and a classic dish for the ages. A somewhat whimsical dessert, as the name might suggest, it is worthy of being raised up on a pedestal. In novelist Jane Austen’s Regency world, trifle was served during holidays and for special occasions. Jane and her family enjoyed the version made from a handwritten “receipt” in the leather-bound book of Martha Lloyd, a dear friend living in Jane’s household who later became her sister-in-law.
The “fool” was fondly regarded during the Tudor period (1485-1603); in this case, the cream dish — not a royal court jester. It became an early prototype of the modern trifle. In A Worlde of Wordes (1578), lexicographer John Florio described trifle as “a kinde of cloutd creame called a foole.” One of the earliest published trifle recipes appeared in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewell (1585); thick cream heated with sugar, ginger, and rosewater was served in a silver bowl. Many recipes in this book are directly attributed to noblemen and women.
Fools slowly began to resemble a modern trifle with its layer of cake. Gervase Markham’s recipe for Norfolk Fool in The English Housewife (1615) was a spice-scented custard poured over sliced manchet — a small loaf made from the finest white flour and eaten exclusively by the nobility. Markham’s trifle recipe was a spiced version of “cloutd creame.”
By the late 18th century, trifles included fruit. Syllabub, a frothy drink of cold cream whipped with wine, became an important element too. The names and usage for fools, trifles, syllabubs, and possets (cream heated with wine) had become interchangeable … and somewhat confusing. But these dishes continued to evolve, each following a slightly different path.
The trifle’s popularity soared during the Victorian period. Isabella Beeton, a Victorian cooking authority, gives several recipes in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), including stewed apple trifle as well as Indian Trifle, a star-shaped, decorated rice-almond pudding surrounded by boiled custard.
The prevailing fashion for Victorian tableware included elegant serving pieces for trifles, syllabubs, possets, flummeries, and other cream-based desserts. Sherry trifle was the dining table’s showpiece dessert, standing tall in a cut glass pedestal bowl.
A glass trifle bowl is endlessly versatile for entertaining and doubles as a container for fruits, layered salads, or dips. Diners can admire the beauty of the foods artfully arranged inside. Any deep-sided glass bowl will work. A small glass punch bowl will hold trifle for a crowd. For making individual portions, attractive wide-mouth glasses, small glass flowerpots, or vintage shrimp cocktail dishes without the inserts work well.
Here’s an overview of the four essential trifle layers: biscuit/cake base; fruit (jelly); custard; and whipped cream. Pair ingredients that offer a balance in flavor, appearance, and texture. Which trifle recipe is the best? That’s easy to answer! Trifle is more of a method than one exact recipe; it would be the one that you, your mother, or your granny makes!
Trifle was, and still is, a way for cooks to give new life to leftover cookies (biscuits in England), cake, and cream. Sponge fingers, or ladyfingers, were introduced to England by Italian Renaissance cooks. Mrs. Beeton said ratafia biscuits, similar to amaretti, should be the size of large buttons. Crisp savoiardi and French boudoir biscuits need a good drizzle to soften their crispy edges.
The popular Savoy sponge cake evolved from smaller sponge fingers and Naples biscuits. Madeira cake is flavored with lemon zest, not Madeira, which it is meant to accompany. Elizabeth Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) includes an early recipe that’s similar to pound cake; either type works well.
England’s “Victoria sponge sandwich” is closer in texture to a butter cake. It appeared in Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook as “Victoria Sandwiches.” She baked the cake in a round Yorkshire pudding pan, sliced it horizontally to spread with jam, then cut the stacked two-layer cake into fingers. Jam, preserves, or marmalade-filled cake fingers or cubes are a trifle bowl favorite. The Almond Trifle Cake in this article is a respectable stand-in for Victoria sponge.
Select your favorite, seasonal, fresh fruits, or poach fresh fruits with citrus peel any time of year. A compote of baked fruits is lovely too. These methods were used long ago when fresh fruits were out of season.
A wobbly layer of Jell-O is the most debated element of trifle; some people love it, others not so much. While jellies (savory or sweet molded gelatin dishes) were once made in England and the Colonies, Coxes Instant Gelatine appeared in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1842. Its success, and the surfeit of elaborate porcelain and copper jelly molds, launched jelly’s popularity, landing it in the trifle bowl.
Flavored gelatin is convenient if you like the jelly, but it’s creative to experiment with unflavored gelatin and tangy fruit juices — even wine — to create a rainbow of jelly colors and natural flavors.
Soft, silky custard is the hallmark of a proper English trifle. This critical element is superior when homemade, but cooks may also rely on commercial “pudding mix.” An English favorite is Bird’s Original Custard Powder. Pharmacist Alfred Bird developed the flavored starch mix in 1837 because his wife was allergic to eggs.
Making custard from scratch is easier than you may think. Two superb recipes are included to guide you through the process, both worthy of gracing the trifle bowl. One is a traditional English setting custard with a creamy texture and rich consistency from egg yolks. The cornstarch prevents acid in the trifle’s fruit layer from weakening the egg’s thickening power.
The second recipe, boiled custard, is similar to crème anglaise (“English cream”) — a pouring custard sauce. The British carried boiled custard recipes to the American Colonies, where it has a long tradition of use. In manuscript cookbooks, the name traces back to the early 17th century. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse includes a trifle recipe with “good boiled custard not too thick.” Hannah’s book was the bestselling cookbook of the 18th century. Custard consistencies vary from cook to cook; this version has a little extra thickening so it doesn’t pool in the bottom of the bowl.
Everyone loves the trifle’s final layer: whipped clouds of lightly sweetened cream. But in old England and the Colonies, the trifle’s crowning glory was the ubiquitous syllabub — a frothy, chilled beverage of rich milk/cream whisked with wine, lemon juice, sugar, and spice. Syllabubs curdle and separate; light, frothy milk or cream curds float above opaque, sweetened wine. The frothy curds were coveted for trifle.
For the freshest dairy products and maximum froth, cows were milked directly into bowls of sweetened wine. In Wholesome Fare (1878), Edmund Delamere wrote, “The froth shall rise in a heap over its contents.” When a cow is not available, he suggests filling a large, powerful syringe with milk and squirting it violently into the bowl. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, even to make sub-vaccine syllabub.” This wasn’t his last word on the subject. “Mount the highest stool or table in the house, and from that eminence pour the milk out of the teapot into the bowl, frothing it as much, and spilling it as little, as possible.”
You see that it wasn’t a trifling matter to make a frothy “whipt syllabub.” Cooks didn’t have the benefit of modern conveniences. The hard labor of whipping the ingredients with rosemary twig whisks or hickory rods for 30 minutes may have resulted in more than a few splinters in the desserts. Everlasting syllabub, with more cream and less wine, was easier to whip. Sarah Rutledge, “a lady of Charleston” and author of The Carolina Housewife (1851), devised a better whipping method by putting the ingredients into a large jar to shake vigorously for 10 minutes. Edmund Delamere pondered, “Syllabub-whisking is good exercise for young ladies, and might be made an agreeable branch of calisthenics in female educational establishments.”
Susan’s Boiled Custard
Older boiled custard recipes, which are delicious, often include whole eggs. (French-influenced custards use only the yolks.) A little starch stabilizes and helps the eggs to better tolerate direct heat. It also gives the custard body. When chilled, this custard’s consistency is luxurious and soft but not thick like a pudding. For a richer, thicker custard, use half cream and add 1 or 2 additional egg yolks. Tips: the custard will curdle at a full boil. If it happens, strain, then process briefly in a blender. If you aren’t using starch, a double boiler helps prevent overcooking; keep the water just below the boiling point.
1 vanilla bean, split open lengthwise, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups fresh, whole milk or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup heavy cream
3 large egg yolks (reserve whites to make meringues)
1 whole large egg
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon sea salt
Scrape vanilla seeds into milk; add pod. Heat in a heavy-bottom saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form around the edge. In another bowl, thoroughly whisk yolks, whole egg, sugar, cornstarch, and salt until pale. To temper the eggs, whisk them rapidly while slowly pouring in 1/ of the hot milk. Whisk in a little more. Pour egg mixture into the remaining hot milk while stirring briskly with a wooden spoon or whisk. Continue stirring until custard thickens, up to 10 minutes. The change is subtle; watch carefully. Stop cooking when you can trace a line on the back of a custard-coated spoon (the nappè stage, 180-185 degrees F). Pour custard through a mesh strainer into a bowl (if using extract, stir into warm custard now). To chill quickly, set the bowl into a larger bowl with an ice bath; stir often. When cool, use for trifle, or cover and refrigerate two or three days. Makes about 2¼ cups for a medium trifle. Recipe can be doubled.
– Infuse vanilla bean in the hot milk 20 minutes.
– Steep 3 thin, diagonal slices of fresh ginger root or strips of peel from 1 rinsed lemon or orange in the hot milk. The Victorians favored lemon flavoring.
– Add 2 to 3 tablespoons almond or orange liqueur, fine sherry, or brandy.
Eunice Scattergood’s English Custard
My friend Margaret Happel Perry, who was raised in England, shares this recipe and the instructions below for making “A Very English Trifle.” They are from Eunice Scattergood, the dearest school friend of Margaret’s maternal grandmother, Granny Nell. The custard is an important component in making Eunice’s trifle. Margaret says after Eunice died, the dessert disappeared from Granny Nell’s Sunday tea table. She explains, “The heartache of making it was too much. But a few months later, my very forthright, no-nonsense paternal grandmother determined the period of mourning was over. She appeared for Sunday tea bringing with her the much-missed trifle. It appeared in all its welcomed glory, and as we ate we realized that, along with the sherry, a good measure of whisky had been added as a celebration of Mrs. Scattergood’s lifelong friendship.” Following the custard recipe are brief instructions for assembling Mrs. Scattergood’s memorable dessert — A Very English Trifle.
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
8 large egg yolks
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
In a 2-quart saucepan, mix sugar and cornstarch. Using a wooden spoon, slowly stir in milk, blending until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Let simmer 30 seconds; remove from heat. In medium-size bowl, rapidly beat together egg yolks with about ½ cup of hot cornstarch mixture. Pour egg yolk mixture into cornstarch mixture in saucepan, beating quickly. Over very low heat, cook mixture, stirring constantly until thickened. This will take about 10 minutes; do not let boil. Stir in the vanilla extract. When ready, custard will heavily coat back of wooden spoon and you will be able to draw a line and the line will remain. Cool custard to room temperature; chill completely in refrigerator until of soft-set consistency. Do this quickly by pouring custard into a large pie plate. When custard is completely cold, use for trifle, following instructions below.
A Very English Trifle
Trim off brown crusts from a loaf of homemade pound cake. Cut cake vertically into ⅓-inch slices (about 24). Thickly spread half with strawberry preserves; top with remaining half. Brush all sides with a mixture of ½ cup each orange juice and sherry; cut sandwiches into ¾-inch cubes. Put an even layer of cubes into a 2½ quart glass trifle bowl; sprinkle in any remaining sherry mixture, pouring some around the outer edge. Add 2 tablespoons more of sherry, and 2 or 3 tablespoons Scotch whisky, if desired. Margaret advises, “The cake must be very moist but not swimming in liquid.”
For the next layer, use one pound of fresh strawberries; reserve 3 or 4 for decoration. Slice half the remaining berries; crush lightly in a medium-size bowl. Thinly slice remaining berries; stir into crushed berries. Spread over cake layer; cover and chill. Make and chill the custard as recommended above. Pour custard evenly over fruit. Cover and chill 2 to 4 hours, preferably overnight. Before serving, beat in an electric mixer on high speed 1½ cups heavy cream until soft peaks form. Sprinkle over 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. With mixer at low speed, beat to combine; do not let cream become too stiff. Swirl cream over custard layer. Decorate with reserved strawberries, cut lengthwise into halves or quarters, and 2 to 3 tablespoons slivered, toasted almonds. Chill briefly until ready to serve.
Raspberry Rose Fool
The charm of this old-fashioned dessert lies in its simplicity as well as its delicious taste. Gooseberry fool was a favorite of Colonial Americans. Tart fruits like berries and rhubarb complement the sweetened cream best. Or choose pureed or finely diced honey mangoes; ripe peaches; very ripe, soft Hachiya persimmons; or homemade cranberry-orange sauce. Sweeten fruits, to taste, with sugar or honey. Fruits can be stewed or many used without cooking. British cooks often stir rich custard into the whipped cream for added nutrition and sophistication — an idea worth remembering. Rhubarb season is April through June; try it in a flavorful variation. Serve shortbread or ginger cookies on the side.
2 cups fresh raspberries or blackberries, preferably organic, rinsed, patted dry
⅓ cup fine, granulated sugar, or to taste
Tiny pinch sea salt
1 cup heavy cream plus 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
¼ to ½ teaspoon rosewater or orange flower water, to taste, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Whole raspberries for layering and decoration
Candied rose petals or mint leaves for decoration (optional)
Macerate berries in a medium saucepan with sugar and salt for 30 minutes to draw out juice. Simmer until soft. Pour into a mesh strainer over a bowl; with a spatula, press out juice and pulp. Discard seeds. Chill the mixture. Whip cream with sugar and rosewater. Fill attractive glasses with alternate layers of berry puree, whipped cream, and whole berries to create layers. Decorate and serve at once or refrigerate. Makes 5 to 6 servings.
Put 4 cups trimmed, cubed rhubarb (about 1 pound), ¼ to ⅓ cup sugar, pinch sea salt, and the zest and juice of 1 small orange into a medium skillet; cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until rhubarb softens and breaks down (or roast on a small baking sheet in the oven until soft). Refrigerate until cold. Flavor the whipped cream with rosewater or 2 tablespoons elderflower cordial (Belvoir Fruit Farms, available locally) or Grand Marnier. Layer cold rhubarb with the cream.
Almond Trifle Cake
This cake can be baked three days in advance. Trim off brown crusts before slicing cake. A glaze boosts the cake’s flavor and moisture. Combine 1 tablespoon each of fine sugar, spirits (choices below), and fresh lemon or tart orange juice. Stir well to dissolve sugar; spoon over warm cake after it’s removed from the pan.
1⅔ cups cake flour (like King Arthur), or all-purpose flour (like Gold Medal)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup sugar
1 cup light sour cream or plain, whole milk yogurt, room temperature
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 organic lemon or orange
½ cup safflower oil or light olive oil
1 tablespoon almond liqueur, rum, sherry, or orange juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 5- by 9-inch loaf pan with baking spray; set aside. Measure flour by whisking it first, then spooning into measuring cups; level tops with a blunt knife. Put flour with baking powder into a large mixing bowl, whisk well for 30 seconds; set aside. In a medium bowl, thoroughly blend sugar, sour cream, eggs, salt, extract, and zest. Stir in the oil. Pour mixture into dry ingredients; stir a few seconds; add liqueur. Continue stirring 30 seconds more or just until batter is smooth. Scrape into pan; bake 30 to 35 minutes or until cake top is golden brown and develops a crack. Test center with a cake tester; it should come out clean. (If necessary, slightly increase baking time for an 8½- by 4½-inch loaf pan.) Put the cake on a rack for 10 minutes; remove from the pan. Cool; store airtight.
A Final Word
Early recipes often combined two or three baked items, such as cake in the bowl topped with crumbled macaroons and ladyfingers around the sides. Experiment with jellyroll slices, amaretti, soft cubes of gingerbread, or brownies. For springtime, try angel food cake, meringues, chiffon cake, or homemade shortbread.
Wine, spirits, and liqueurs add terrific flavor. Sack (fortified wine), ratafia, Renish (from the Rhine), and raisin wine are traditional favorites. Choose a fine, medium-dry sherry (like Amontillado), sercial Madeira, Marsala, brandy, rum, Grand Marnier, limoncello, or Amaretto. Select two or three for complexity and balance. The brandy and sherry pair nicely.
A word of caution! Use spirits judiciously; too much will overpower both the dessert and the diners. If you wish, soften the spirits with some simple syrup. If cooking for children or those who avoid alcohol, use fresh, squeezed fruit juice, fruit nectar, or syrup; thinned fruit puree; or nonalcoholic elderflower or rose cordial.