The anatomy of a trifle: what goes into this all-time classic dessert
The question is: how much can we change a trifle, before it’s no longer a trifle?
There is a certain “je ne sais quoi” about a trifle – a magical combination of components, layered and left to infuse and set to get the perfect flavour and texture, all of which make it utterly irresistible. Beloved by many, and hated by some, it is an age-old dish, a childhood staple that has evolved into a celebrated Christmas classic. While some prefer to stick to tradition, diligently making their great-grandmother’s recipe year after year, others have been bold, creating modern, stylish and exciting takes on the retro dish. But the question is: how much can we change a trifle, before it’s no longer a trifle? What are the quintessential components that simply cannot be left out?
Collins Dictionary defines a trifle as “a cold dessert made of layers of sponge cake, jelly, fruit, and custard, and usually covered with cream”. The first known trifle can be traced back all the way to the 16th century, although it was nothing like the dish we know today. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it morphed into a layered concoction consisting of alcohol-soaked cake and a creamy sweet sauce. Over the years, many variations have emerged, often including jelly and fruit and topped with custard and cream.
As with all structures, a good trifle must start with a sound foundation. It needs a cake or biscuit layer, or both, to give it support and texture, and make it something more than a soft, creamy pudding. Don’t be fussy about the type of cake, though. In fact, using slightly stale, dry cake or crispy boudoir biscuits helps soak up more of the alcohol or fruit juice. If you like, you can slather the cake with jam, although this is not strictly necessary.
Next, comes the fruit. Interestingly, not everyone considers fruit an essential component. But without the fruity, tangy layer, a trifle can quickly drift towards the territory of other layered desserts such as tiramisu.
A traditional trifle must also have a very generous helping of something boozy. Sherry or brandy are classic options but, really, anything goes here, from flavoured liqueurs to a splash of bubbly. But what do you do, if you are serving your trifle at the kids’ table or to your 90-year-old mother-in-law? Don’t panic: you can simply exchange the alcohol for some fruit juice or light sugar syrup. Don’t skip this step, though, as it softens the cake and helps set everything together.
Now comes the real debate. To jelly or not to jelly? Though many feel passionately that jelly has no place in the heart of a trifle, The Guardian recently ran a poll that showed that, in fact, more than 60% of people firmly believe that it does belong in a trifle! We’ll leave that one up to you. Although jelly does give the dish a different texture and an added layer of flavour and colour, it isn’t vital.
Last but not least, a trifle must have a creamy layer. A velvety custard topped with fluffy whipped cream brings the dessert together and gives a trifle it’s distinct light softness. There is room to play around here, though. Technically, you don’t need to include both custard and cream, and you could swap it out for a completely different ingredient such as mascarpone or yoghurt. But whatever it is, a creamy layer is an absolute must. Without it, a trifle is simply a fruity, boozy cake.
While there are some essential rules, ultimately a trifle is a dish that calls for creativity and uniqueness. It should be all that you expect from a festive dessert: decadent, extravagant and outrageously gorgeous.