As a lifelong sweets lover, I think of summertime as the season where I cast aside my beloved rich, wintry desserts for light, fruity treats. One dish that always tops my list of summer offerings is the trifle. Composed of layers of liquor-doused sponge cake, fruit or preserves, custard and whipped cream, this heavenly British original is far from trivial.
Although it may sound unfamiliar to many Americans, this creamy creation has wowed Britain since the Middle Ages. Trifle first appeared in print in T. Dawson’s 1596 book “The Good Huswifes Jewell” and consisted of spiced, sweetened and boiled cream.
The trifle has grown more elaborate more tasty over time
During the 18th century, the trifle became much more elaborate. So did its presentation. In order for guests to see the ingredients, sponge cake or macaroons were placed into a clear glass bowl. They were then wetted with wine, brandy or sherry. Blanketed by custard, they were ultimately topped by the frothy milk and wine or fruit juice combo known as syllabub.
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The city of Cambridge specialized in several trifles, one of which was known as “the duke’s custard.” Here, brandied Morello cherries were slipped between the sponge cake and custard. Cambridge also had “the dean’s cream,” which incorporated candied fruit, and “chapel trifle,” which substituted jam for the alcohol.
The addition of fruit turned the trifle into a sophisticated confection. No longer was it just a bowl of velvety custard, cream and dampened cake. Now diners encountered distinct textures and flavors. With this, the modern trifle was born.
Fruit added complexity and sweetness to the dessert. It also increased its exquisiteness. When viewed from the side, the contrasting bands of gold from the cookies, orange, violet or ruby from the fruit, blond custard and white cream were striking. It’s not surprising that 18th-century cookbook author Hannah Glasse said that, with burning candles placed around it, a fruit preserve-laced trifle made a beautiful centerpiece.
In Victorian England, trifle became the dessert to be served at festive occasions. It was a staple of the banquet table and served as a light alternative to another British classic, Christmas pudding.
Over the decades cooks have experimented with this lovely sweet, occasionally transforming it into something far less pleasing. I think specifically of the 1890s savory trifle. In it fried bread took the place of sponge cake, chunks of lobster replaced the fruit and mayonnaise stood in for the custard.
In recipes aimed at England’s working poor, early 20th-century British food lecturer Florence Petty tried to inject some whimsy and fun. To that end, she refashioned the trifle into a main dish made from leftovers. Dubbed “beef trifle,” her creation consisted of meat mixed with horseradish and breadcrumbs. Topped with layers of beaten eggs and gravy, Petty’s beef trifle was baked and served in a glass bowl as the evening entree.
Another less radical take was the Indian trifle, which included rice and cinnamon. Closer to the original are those recipes that replace the alcohol used for softening the sponge cake with coffee, coconut milk or liqueur.
Because of my nagging sweet tooth, I stick with tried-and-true dessert trifles, with a few tweaks, or course. Instead of the traditional sponge cake, I substitute Italian ladyfingers or amaretti cookies and pour Madeira or other sweet, white wine over them. If I’m serving this to children as well as adults, I use the fruit’s macerating liquid or orange juice in place of the alcohol.
As for the colorful, fruity layer, some cooks insist on using preserves rather than fruit. Not me. Although this dessert tastes magnificent with virtually any fruit, I like a mixture of macerated raspberries and blueberries, mangoes and kiwis, plums, apricots, strawberries or passion fruit. In the winter, canned peaches or pomegranate seeds are equally divine.
Regarding the final two tiers, custard and whipped cream made from scratch are musts. Neither takes long to prepare, yet both taste so much better than what you’ll get from a box or an aerosol can. To add a bit of zing, I sprinkle chopped pistachios, toasted almond slivers, citrus zest or pomegranate seeds over the whipped cream.
This summer cast aside the usual pies, cobblers and ice creams for British trifles. They never fail to please both visually and gastronomically.
You can make this in one large, clear glass bowl or small, individual glass bowls.
- 12 ounces fresh raspberries
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons cranberry juice
- 12 to 14 ladyfinger or amaretti cookies
- ½ cup white wine
- 3 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups milk
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons sliced blanched almonds, toasted
- Toss the raspberries, sugar and cranberry juice together in a bowl and allow the ingredients to steep for 30 minutes or so.
- As the berries are macerating, make the custard. Place the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, almond and vanilla extracts and pinch of salt into a saucepan and, over medium heat, stir the ingredients until combined. Slowly pour in the milk and cornstarch, stirring continually. Keep cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick and the custard can coat the back of a spoon and it reaches a temperature of 180 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and allow the custard to cool.
- In either a large glass bowl or smaller individual bowls, line up the ladyfingers until the bottom is covered. So that I can fit more cookies in the bowl, I like to place them on their sides rather than bottoms.
- Using a strainer, strain the berries, reserving their juices. You should end up with roughly ¼ cup of liquid. Add the wine to the juice and pour the mixture over the ladyfingers so that all are coated.
- At this point make the whipped cream. In a medium bowl beat together the cream, almond extract and sugar until stiff peaks form.
- To assemble the trifle, evenly spoon the raspberries over the ladyfingers. Pour the cooled custard over the berries. Spread the whipped cream over the custard and then top it with the toasted almonds. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Main photo: A raspberry trifle. Credit: Kathy Hunt