Trifle: A Grand Dessert With A Humble Name

The first time I can remember eating trifle was after a birthday meal in college. My good friend Russell Cook, a Richmond-based chef who also happens to be a fellow trifle fan, sent me home from his restaurant bearing a take-out tin layered with cake, strawberries, custard and whipped cream. I sat on my bed in the wee hours eating every bit of it. It was just about the most decadent ending to a birthday night that I could imagine.

And that's one of the wonderful things about trifle — it's at once so simple and so luxurious, so humble and so hoity-toity, innocent yet sexy. There's something about it that hits our basest food pleasure points. Perhaps that's why celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, the ultimate culinary hedonist, is such a big fan of the dessert. On her website, Nigella.com, she writes in the headnote of her Anglo-Italian Trifle recipe: "I don't think I could write a book that didn't include a recipe for trifle somewhere."

It's a concept that most likely has its roots in my favorite way to cook: Someone had a bit of leftover cake and came up with a great way to repurpose it. Trifle is said to date back a few hundred years to England, and this jumble of textures has become a national favorite in that country, often being served at birthday parties and after a big Sunday meal.

Traditionally, it's some kind of cake (typically sponge) moistened with some type of booze (typically sweet sherry) and layered with custard and jam or perhaps fresh fruit, all topped with whipped cream. But for the people of Britain, there is one ingredient that trumps all others: nostalgia. It's the dish that everyone's Gran makes better than anyone else's, and if Gran made it with what the Brits call "jelly," a fruity red gelatin that some people view as an essential trifle ingredient, then a jellyless version won't do.

Lawson recommends buying the cake layer because it's unlikely that anyone would notice the effort if you made your own. But if you have the time and you're up for the challenge, you can make many components from scratch. It's not complicated, although making the custard, the whipped cream and maybe even the cake does dirty a lot of dishes and pans.

About The Author

Rina Rapuano is a freelance food writer and restaurant reviewer based in Washington, D.C. She writes for The Washington Post's Food section; CityEats; Washingtonian magazine; and Capitol File magazine. When she's not dragging her husband and two kids to area restaurants, she's usually in the kitchen cooking, baking or sneaking a cookie. Find Rapuano on Twitter at @rinarap.

But it can also be a no-fuss dessert that you throw together out of things you have in the freezer and the pantry. If you have frozen berries, jam, pudding mix, a can of whipped cream and a frozen pound cake on hand, you've got yourself a trifle.

Of course, fresh fruit is always preferable to frozen, and it's one ingredient that Irish-born chef Cathal Armstrong, owner of Restaurant Eve and a handful of other restaurants in Alexandria, Va., won't budge on. He makes several versions of this comfort food for his restaurants, especially around St. Patrick's Day. And while he sometimes bases it on his mother's recipe, he doesn't need to rely on the canned fruit she once used probably because it was cheaper, easier and more readily available.

"The one area that we would never make exception to is the quality of the fruit we're using," he says of his own trifle. "That one step, not shortcutting there, will really make the trifle a whole lot better."

Good summer variations could employ tropical or flag-colored fruits, as with two of the recipes below, and winter spins could feature almonds and clementines, chocolate and cherries, or passion fruit and ginger. If you don't want to use alcohol, any fruit juice will do — although Armstrong says heating the sherry to 155 degrees will burn off the alcohol while keeping the essential sherry flavor.

The dessert is generally served in a trifle bowl — a pedestaled glass bowl that shows off all those glorious layers. "The prized display in someone's home would be the trifle bowl," Armstrong says of his native land. For entertaining purposes, however, it's fun to make individual servings in wineglasses or even old-timey Mason jars — a good way to make it portable for picnics. And because this should be a no-stress dessert, don't worry if you don't have a trifle bowl. Any appropriately sized glass bowl will do.

Since I'm not from Great Britain, I have no sentimental attachment to any particular trifle recipe. I'm a freewheeling, willy-nilly, equal opportunity trifle lover, which leaves me open to trying all sorts of interpretations to this versatile dessert, picking and choosing from the many, many varieties out there, tailoring my concoctions to highlight my favorite ingredients.

The recipes here are twists on the beloved original. And while traditionalists and British transplants may balk at the idea of updating a national treasure, I'm not about to try to compete with anyone's Gran.

Raspberry, White Chocolate And Almond Trifle

This wonderful recipe, adapted from Bon Appetit (December 2005), would work just as well in summer as in winter. Mixing the white chocolate with cream mellows its intense sweetness, and the light hit of almond extract really adds to the balance of flavors. And with no custard to make, it's one of the easier trifles to whip up.

Raspberry, White Chocolate And Almond Trifle i i
Rina Rapuano for NPR
Raspberry, White Chocolate And Almond Trifle
Rina Rapuano for NPR

Makes 16 servings

3 1/2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream

12 ounces high-quality white chocolate, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

7 ounces crisp ladyfinger cookies

1 cup raspberry jam, melted in a saucepan over medium heat

1 1/2 12-ounce packages frozen unsweetened raspberries, partially thawed

2 6-ounce containers fresh raspberries

3/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Simmer 1 cup of cream in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add white chocolate and whisk until smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 10 minutes. Beat remaining 2 1/2 cups cream and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract in a large bowl to soft peaks. Fold in white chocolate mixture.

Stir sugar and water in small saucepan over medium heat until sugar melts. Mix in remaining 3/4 teaspoon almond extract and remove syrup from heat. Quickly submerge 1 ladyfinger in syrup and shake excess back into pan. Place dipped cookie in bottom of 14-cup trifle dish. Repeat with enough cookies to cover bottom of dish.

Spread 1/3 of melted jam over cookies in dish. Top with 1/3 of partially thawed berries with juices. Spread 1/3 of whipped chocolate cream over. Repeat layering with dipped ladyfingers, melted jam, partially thawed berries and whipped chocolate cream two more times. Mound fresh berries in center of trifle. Sprinkle almonds around edge. Cover and chill at least 5 hours and up to 24 hours.

Lemon Curd Trifle With Fresh Berries

This recipe, adapted from a Tyler Florence Food 911 episode, is the perfect Fourth of July trifle. Similar to the traditional version, it gains a refreshing modern edge from the addition of limoncello and lemon curd. As with any trifle, it can be made and chilled in advance — but it loses its appeal once broken into, with leftovers often turning into a watery mess the next day.

Makes 6 servings

6 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar

4 medium-size lemons, zested and juiced

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut in chunks

1 pint fresh strawberries, stemmed and halved lengthwise

1 pint fresh blueberries

1 pint fresh blackberries

1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped and sweetened to taste with confectioners' sugar

1 prepared lemon pound cake, sliced about 1/2-inch wide

1/4 cup limoncello or Grand Marnier liqueur (optional)

Fresh mint leaves, for garnish

To make the lemon curd, bring a pot of water to a simmer over medium-low heat. Combine the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest in a metal or glass heat-resistant bowl and whisk until smooth. Set the bowl over the simmering water, without letting the bottom touch the water, and continue to whisk vigorously for a good 10 minutes, until the curd has doubled in volume and is very thick and yellow. Don't let it boil.

Remove the bowl from heat and whisk in the butter, a couple of chunks at a time, until melted. Refrigerate until the custard is cold and firm, at least an hour.

To build the trifle, put the berries in a mixing bowl and toss them together so they are evenly distributed. Fold the whipped cream into the chilled lemon curd. Line the bottom of a glass trifle bowl with pieces of pound cake to fit. Drizzle the cake with limoncello, spoon a layer of the lemon curd over the cake, and then a layer of mixed berries. Repeat the layers until the ingredients are used up (the last layer looks best if it's the berries). Chill before serving. Garnish with fresh mint.

Tropical Rum Trifle

Traditionalists might scoff at this version of trifle, adapted from Southern Living (April 2003), but this was one of my family's favorites. Irish-born chef Cathal Armstrong doesn't have a problem with his childhood dessert getting an exotic makeover, saying this combination is now one of his favorite ways to make it at home. "Usually I do tropical fruits, things not necessarily available when we were kids," he says. "I like pineapple, mango. Strawberry is always going to be high on the list." Note that custard must be chilled for 1 hour before assembling trifle.

Tropical Rum Trifle i i
Rina Rapuano for NPR
Tropical Rum Trifle
Rina Rapuano for NPR

Makes 10 to 12 servings

Coconut Cream Custard (recipe below)

2 mangoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 1/4 cups fresh pineapple chunks

1/4 cup pineapple juice

1/3 cup coconut-flavored rum, such as Malibu

1 store-bought angel food cake, sliced about 1/2-inch thick

2 bananas, sliced about 1/4-inch thick

1 1/3 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted

2/3 cup chopped unsalted macadamia nuts, toasted

1 cup whipping cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Garnishes: mango, star fruit, toasted coconut, toasted macadamia nuts

Make the custard (recipe below).

Stir together mangoes, pineapple, pineapple juice and rum in a bowl. Cover and chill 20 minutes.

Remove fruit from bowl with a slotted spoon, reserving juice.

Brush cake slices with juice mixture. Arrange cake slices in the bottom of a 4-quart bowl or trifle bowl. Top with half each of mango mixture, banana slices, custard, coconut and macadamia nuts. Repeat layers.

Beat whipping cream until foamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until soft peaks form. Add vanilla and beat until blended. Spread evenly over top of trifle. Cover and chill 1 1/2 hours. Garnish, if desired.


Coconut Cream Custard

Makes 4 cups

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup cornstarch

2 cups milk

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk (low-fat works fine)

6 large egg yolks

Bring all ingredients to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Boil, whisking constantly, for 1 minute or until thickened. Remove from heat. Place pan in ice water, whisking occasionally until cool. Cover and chill for 1 hour.

Chocolate Cherry Trifle

The original of this Nigella Lawson recipe, from her cookbook Feast (Hyperion 2004), yielded enough to feed 16. This is adapted for a smaller crowd, while upping the custard ratio and swapping devil's food cake for chocolate pound cake. The result is a stunning Black Forest twist on the classic. Note, this is an overnight preparation.

Chocolate Cherry Trifle i i
Rina Rapuano for NPR
Chocolate Cherry Trifle
Rina Rapuano for NPR

Makes 8 servings

12 ounces purchased or made-from-a-box devil's food cake

1/4 cup black cherry jam

1/4 cup cherry brandy

1 cup jarred sour cherries, drained

For The Custard

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, minimum 70 percent cocoa solids, chopped (plus more for grating)

1 1/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon whole milk

1 1/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

8 large egg yolks

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1/3 cup cocoa

For The Topping

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1 ounce bittersweet chocolate

Slice the chocolate cake about 1/2-inch thick and make jam sandwiches with the cherry jam. Line the bottom of a large wide trifle bowl with the sandwiches. Pour the cherry brandy over the sandwiches and top with the drained cherries. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to macerate for about 20 minutes while you make the custard.

For the custard, melt the chocolate on low to medium heat in the microwave, checking after 2 minutes, though it will probably need 4 minutes. Or you can place it in a bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until melted. Once the chocolate is melted, set aside.

Warm the milk and cream in a saucepan. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cocoa in a large bowl. Pour the warm milk and cream into the bowl, whisking it into the yolks and sugar mixture. Stir in the melted chocolate, and pour the custard back into the saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the custard thickens, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring all the time and making sure it doesn't boil. (The custard should coat the back of a wooden spoon when it's ready and should be thick when warm, but it does continue to thicken as it cools.) Pour into a bowl to cool and cover the top of the custard with cling wrap to prevent a skin from forming.

When the custard is cold, pour and spread it over the chocolate cake layer in the trifle bowl, and leave in the refrigerator to set, covered in plastic wrap overnight.

When you are ready to decorate, softly whip the cream with confectioners' sugar and spread it gently over the layer of custard. Grate chocolate over the top.

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