The word “trifle” means something of little consequence, insubstantial.
In actual food terms, it’s anything but. It’s custard and / or cream layered with fruit over cake that has been doused with alcohol, usually Sherry, and usually served at the end of a very heavy meal when you look at it and groan. Trifles always end up large: you’re not talking dessert for two here.
Trifle recipes often appear in North America around Christmas time. Trifles are even made now in Southeast Asia.
Though a simple dessert to make, Trifle still looks gorgeous with its multiple layers, colours and textures. It is made in deep bowls so all the layers will be thick, well-defined layers, rather than thinly spread out ones. Ideally the bowls should be flat sided rather than sloping, and should be glass or crystal to show the layers off. Generally, people haul out their fanciest cut-glass or crystal bowls for them.
Most people make the bottom layer from cake. You can use sponge cake, Genoise, ladyfingers, pound cake, macaroons, ratafia biscuits, etc. Some versions use macaroons. Ideally, the cake should be stale. Though some Trifle recipes now have you make cake specially for it, fresh cake will already have its own moisture and not take up the alcohol as well.
There is no clear agreement whether a Trifle should have canned fruit, fresh fruit in season, or in fact no fruit at all. Though one’s first instinct might be to use fresh fruit, it lacks the intensity of flavour that canned fruit or fruit preserves have, so some people like to complement fresh fruit with some kind of preserved fruit or fruit spread. Some use even just use jam instead of fruit.
Most people do a layer of custard, then a layer of whipped cream. Some recipes substitute pastry cream for the custard. Many people these days make up the custard from custard powder, or buy the tubs of ready-made custard from the chiller sections at stores.
The alcohol used ranges greatly: sherry, white wine, rum, liqueurs (Grand Marnier, Amaretto, Framboise, Frangelico, Kirsch), etc. In Scotland, some versions use Scotch for the alcohol. Instead of alcohol, you can use fruit juice. Even if you don’t have any qualms about introducing children to small amounts of alcohol, you may wish to leave it out anyway when making Trifle for children as many children don’t like the taste of it in Trifle.
Decorations on top may include fruit, slivered almonds, or candied fruit or angelica.
Trifle needs a minimum period in the fridge of about 8 hours for the flavours to marry.
Trifles seem to have evolved from fools, taking a different fork in the road along the evolutionary path.
The food writer, Alan Davidson, thought he found the earliest printed Trifle recipe, dating to 1596, by Thomas Dawson, in his book “The Good Huswife’s Jewell” : “Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and season it with Sugar and Ginger, and Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then have it, and make it luke warme in a dish on a Chafingdish and coals, and after put it into a silver piece or bowle, and so serve it to the boorde.”
The recipe, however, doesn’t much look like Trifle.
In 1654, a man name Joseph Cooper published a book called “The Art of Cookery Refined and Augmented.” He had been the cook for Charles I until the fall of the monarchy in 1648. In his book, Cooper included a recipe titled “To make a Foole” that looks like the first evolutionary beginnings of our Trifle :”Slice a Manchet very thin and lay it in the bottom of a dish, and wet them with Sack, boyle Creame, with Eggs, and three or foure blades of Mace; season it with Rosewater and Sugar, stir it well together to prevent curdling; then pour it on the Bread and let it coole; then serve it up to the Table.” [Ed: Manchet is an old word for white bread.]
By 1673, recipe writer Hannah Wolley is adding fruit to the dessert:
“A Norfolk-Fool. Take a quart of thick sweet Cream, and set it a-boiling in a clear scoured Skillet, with some large Mace and whole Cinamon; having boiled a little while, take the yolks of five or six Eggs beaten well and put to it; being off the fire, take out the Cinamon and Mace; the Cream being pretty thick, slice a fine Manchet into thin slices as many as will cover the bottom of the Dish, and then pour on the Cream; trim the Dish with carved Sippets; and stick it with sliced Dates and scrap Sugar all over it. [Hannah Woolley. The Gentlewomans Companion. London. 1673.]
It really wasn’t, though, until the mid 1700s that Trifles started to look like what we now think of as Trifles.
Some people see the addition of jelly as a modern variation, but Hannah Glasse (1708 – 1770) published a Trifle recipe in 1747 that used fruit jelly, and the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861 wrote about Trifles with jelly in them.
Nor is the addition of macaroons a modern invention. Punch magazine (London) mentions them in print around 1860, and Frederick Bishop in his 1852 book “The Wife’s Own Book of Cookery” gave a Trifle recipe calling for macaroons.
The use of whipped cream is new, though: it replaced syllabub, which used to be used instead.
People in the Southern US came to love Trifle. It was served not only as a dessert, but as the centrepiece to teas out on the lawns.
Davidson, Alan and Helen Saberi. The English Kitchen – Trifle. London: Prospect Books. 2001.