Traditional English Trifle

The layers, starting at the bottom: red wine syrup-soaked poundcake; raspberry jam; more syrup-soaked pound cake; thick custard; snowy whipped cream; and chopped chocolate.

The layers, starting at the bottom: red wine syrup-soaked poundcake; raspberry jam; more syrup-soaked pound cake; thick custard; snowy whipped cream; and chopped chocolate.

It’s ridiculous, because there were no sparkles involved, but the way I remember this trifle, it is sparkly and shimmery and a showstopper. Striated layers of sweet deliciousness peeping coyly through a glass bowl or trifle dish is a rather wonderful sight; as your eyes traverse the layers, you anticipate the flavours of each layer and of the spectacular flavour that the combination of all the layers promises to deliver. It’s a sad fact of life that you can’t get the same dramatic presentation with an opaque serving dish, but don’t let a lack of presentation glassware stop you from making this dish; for what lies at the heart of a good trifle is the trifle itself, not glassware.

I’ve made an American version of trifle before – and it’s fantastic, without a doubt – but this was my first full-on traditional English trifle. Traditional English trifle consists of sponge cake soaked in layers of sherry or sherry-spiked sugar syrup, fruit, custard (a word about custard later), and whipped cream. In recent centuries, chocolate made its appearance atop the whipped cream, and I wouldn’t dream of leaving out the chocolate.

The chocolate lurks, seeking its chance to seduce an unsuspecting soul.

The chocolate lurks, seeking its chance to seduce an unsuspecting soul.

If you’re lucky enough to have both oodles of ingredients and a huge dish at your disposal, you repeat the layers of sponge, fruit, custard, whipped cream, and chocolate as many times as is possible. English trifle is notably heavier than the typical American versions I’ve come across, which took a bit of getting used to on my part, as I wasn’t expecting to feel so conquered by a dessert. Leave plenty of room for this trifle, because this dense dessert really does conquer the remaining room in one’s tummy.

Though beautiful indeed while still untouched in its serving dish, trifle is quite unattractive once served. I can only imagine some frustrated cook several hundred years ago taking leftover ingredients and slapping them together pell-mell, not giving a damn about how the final dish would appear.

Here’s how I think it went down, lo those hundreds of years ago…

Archie ambled into the kitchen and asked, “What’s for dinner?”

“Is that all you ever say? ‘What’s for dinner?’ Don’t you care about me as a person? I have ideas, you know! I have thoughts and dreams and desires and did it ever occur to you that I would have been perfectly happy with two children instead of twelve?”

Archie, not really listening to his wife, stared at the table. “Is that custard I see over there?”

“Yes!” his wife shrieked. She started slamming random things into a bowl. “There’s custard, and fruit, and bread, and cream! Here’s the crowning touch!” She poured a tankard of beer over the motley pile of ingredients.

Archie had been disgusted by her random concoction at first, but he perked up at the admixture of beer. He grabbed a huge handful, chewed, swallowed. A smile broke across his face. “It’s bloody fantastic!” he crowed.

It became his favourite dish, and his wife’s favourite way to get tanked.

Who knew that this mess of admittedly wondrous flavours would evolve into a British classic?

I promised you a word about custard, and here it is: POWDERLESS. I’ll elaborate. In my opinion, custard – also known as pastry cream – is at its most beautiful when you make it from scratch. I sneer, perhaps snobbishly, at the custard powder that so many modern-day Brits use to make the custard layer in trifle. No doubt it’s faster, but the taste is incomparable to actual custard; not to mention the addition of who knows what into the powder, whereas if you make the custard yourself, you know what’s going into it.

A close-up of the trifle layers. The pound cake and raspberry jam have sort of fused into one *amazing* fruity layer.

A close-up of the trifle layers. The pound cake and raspberry jam have sort of fused into one *amazing* fruity layer.

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Traditional English Trifle

Yield: Serves 4 – 6

1 11-oz. or 12-oz. all-butter pound cake
10-oz. jar raspberry jam (or flavour of your choice)
1 cup fresh raspberries OR fruit of your choice (sadly for me, my raspberries had moulded while my back was turned, so I used no fruit – but the trifle was still swoonerrific!)
1 2/3 cups sugar, divided
1 1/4 cups water
2 – 4 TBS sherry (I used dry red wine)
3 1/4 cups heavy cream, divided
5 egg yolks
1 TBS vanilla extract
3 heaping tsp cornstarch
1/3 cup powdered sugar OR 2 – 4 TBS maple syrup, for sweetening the whipped cream layer
1/4 cup chocolate, chopped

Cut the pound cake into 3/4″ slices, and lay about half the slices at the bottom of a trifle dish or glass bowl, with the slices reaching slightly up the sides of the dish or bowl. Spread the jam atop the cake and cover with a second layer of cake slices. Layer the fruit evenly atop the cake “sandwiches.”

Boil 1 cup sugar and the water together in a small saucepan for 5 minutes or until the sugar melts and forms a light syrup. Add the sherry, if using, and pour the warm syrup over the pound cake and berries. Let stand for about forty minutes, or until most of the syrup has soaked into the cake “sandwiches.”

Make the custard. Bring 2 cups heavy cream to boil in a large saucepan. In a separate bowl, mix the egg yolks, 2/3 cup sugar, vanilla, and cornstarch until well-blended and lemon-coloured. Trickle the hot cream over the yolk mixture, whisking constantly, until all the cream has been added. Be careful to add the cream slowly, so as not to curdle the yolks. Return the cream and yolk mixture to the saucepan and whisk constantly over medium heat until bubbles form on the surface and the custard becomes noticeably harder to whisk. (This usually takes about 20 – 25 minutes.) Continue whisking another 30 – 60 seconds, then remove from heat. Do not overcook, or there will be bits of cooked egg in the custard. If this happens, strain custard to remove these bits.

Pour the hot custard over the trifle. Smooth the top. Place a layer of cling film directly against the surface of the custard (this will prevent a skin from forming) and refrigerate until set.

When the trifle has set, whip the remaining 1 1/4 cups cream with the powdered sugar or maple syrup until stiff peaks form. Spoon evenly atop the trifle and garnish with chopped chocolate. Keep refrigerated and eat within 2 – 3 days.

Source: Adapted from Eating Royally: Recipes and Remembrances from a Palace Kitchen by Darren McGrady, 2007


One thought on “Traditional English Trifle

  1. Pingback: Bailey’s Irish Cream and Coffee Mousse | KitchEnchanted


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