A trifle…

…a mere nothing, a bagatelle. NOT! On the contrary, the trifle is the quintessential English dessert. On a warm summer evening there is nothing, literally nothing to beat a good trifle. Now I have had trifles that don’t deserve the name – abominations with ingredients like chocolate, toffee and caramel. Fine desserts one and all but emphatically not trifles. A real trifle has a soaked sponge cake of some kind, jam, fruit, a custard and whipped cream. Sticking to those basic precepts can still generate a giddy array of sensuous delights. But I usually keep it even more strict, even more real, even more true to my roots in Surrey. You may use only sherry for soaking the sponge. Your fruits and jam may only involve berries. Leeway may be taken with the custard even though the true aficionado knows that a trifle should only really be made with Bird’s custard powder.

Photo of Sherry Trifle halfway through construction copyright 2004 Owen Linderholm

The best trifle I ever made was completely from scratch. I made vanilla-orange sponge cake. I made a raspberry syrup reduction. I used a delicious amontillado sherry. I only used fresh organic raspberries. I made a vanilla creme anglais from scratch with organic eggs. It took me between four and five hours.

The trifle I made for the Kerry dinner was a simpler affair. I was after all making it for about forty people.

Sherry Trifle

You will need a large bowl – preferably glass so people can see the delectable insides of your trifle. Note also that trifle is best made well ahead of time and allowed to get cold.

You will need a tin of Bird’s custard powder (or the time and ability to make an english egg custard from scratch). You will need two packages of lady fingers (about 50 ladyfingers in all). You will need a jar of jam – I used d’Arbo blackberry and blackcurrant (although the jar and information doesn’t show it, this also has blackcurrant in it). You will need lots of berries – say four pints. I used organic blackberries and strawberries. You will need five pints of milk and some sugar. You will need about half a bottle of medium to dry sherry (I prefer amontillado). You will need a pint of heavy whipping cream.

First, make the custard using the milk and sugar according to the directions (two tablespoons of custard powder and two tablespoons of sugar per pint of milk I believe). Mix a very small amount of cold milk with the sugar and powder until it is a smooth paste and set it aside. Heat the rest of the milk to almost boiling and stir the custard mixture in whisking them together thoroughly and stirring constantly, especially off the bottom, to avoid lumps. Let the pan JUST return to boiling, take it off the heat and set it aside to cool.

Next, get about half the ladyfingers and carefully smear a thin layer of jam on one side of them and layer them into the bottom of the bowl. Then sprinkle half the sherry (a quarter bottle) onto the ladyfingers so they start to soak it up. Now put half the berries in a layer on top of that. Cut up any that are bigger than a single bite. Now, when the custard is cool enough to put a finger in comfortably, pour half of it on top of the berries. Now repeat the process with the other half of the ingredients and stick the bowl in the fridge until you are ready to eat it. It can keep as long as 24 hours this way. The final piece is to whip the cream and put it on top of everything right before serving.

The above recipe makes enough for fifteen to twenty people in a normal serving or for about six people if they aren’t watched very carefully and return for seconds and thirds and…

Note that it also isn’t a dessert for children. I made a version using a diluted blackcurrant syrup instead of sherry for the kids and that was pretty popular, too.

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