English Trifle deserves an encore performance in time for the holidays

With the holiday season upon us, it is fitting to give English Trifle a second appearance on this blog. It is certainly a tradition in many parts of the world during December and is like a crown jewel of desserts that will surely exude the WOW factor. It is so simple to put together that no one will believe you when you tell them.

Let's start with the main item. The trifle dish is a deep glass bowl that sits on a single leg much like a brandy glass. It's about 9 inches in diameter and about 6 to 8 inches deep. Although you can find these dishes with a curved bottom, you need to get the flat bottom type for trifle. These dishes are very affordable at less than $12 in most discount stores and  can be used in a variety of ways, so they're versatile. This is the first thing you must purchase.

Now that you have the trifle dish it's time for the fun. First, let me explain what English Trifle is. You take some of your favorite fruit, some jam or preserves, custard, lady fingers or pound cake, and a bit of sherry, rum, grand marnier, or brandy, and you just start layering it all together and there you have it. I usually pick out 2 types of fruit. In my case, I love strawberries and bananas. The two go together so well; however, I've also made raspberry and blackberry trifle as well as blueberry and marion berry. All are wonderful, but try my favorite first before you begin experimenting.

English Trifle dates back to at least the 18th century but some even go back as far as the 15th and 16th centuries depending on who you ask. In any case, it was usually made of whatever was left over i.e. old sponge cake, fruit, custard (left over from baby's feeding), and if there was cream around it was used to top the dish. The fruit was sometimes cooked, if harder raw fruit was used. As the 19th and 20th century rolled around, fresh colorful fruit became more and more popular and the only thing cooked now is the custard.

OK, now let's get all the ingredients together. You need to gather enough of each ingredient to make 4 layers. Here's your shopping list:

1 pound cake or 3 packages of lady fingers
1 1/2 qts. of raspberry preserves or jam
2 packages of instant custard (or you can make your own...yuck)
1 cup of sherry
1 cup of brandy, rum, or grand marnier (your choice but I like half n half brandy & marnier)
1 cup whipping cream
2 qts of fresh strawberries
3 large bananas
1 cup fresh raspberries (to sprinkle on top)

Those are all the ingredients you need. Now let's talk about cost for a minute. Not counting the trifle dish (because you'll use this over and over again), the total cost for this dessert will run between $20 and $25; however, let's remember that this will provide for 10 to 12 nice servings for your guests, so that comes to about $2 per person. The degree that you will impress your dinner guests makes it all worth it.

There are two more things that I want to talk about, the pound cake vs. lady fingers, and instant custard vs. made from scratch custard. I have used pound cake as well as lady fingers for my trifle and it's a toss up as to which I prefer. I will tell you that a pound cake will be the lessor cost of the two. If you do decide to use lady fingers, try to find the ones that are hard, as the soft ones tend to get too mushy. Jello makes a decent instant custard and all you have to add is milk and slowly heat up to a boil. It's a lot easier and less time consuming that making it from scratch not to mention that the instant is less expensive. If you ever come across Harts Custard Powder, buy a can of it. It's about $6, but there is enough there for quite a few trifles or other desserts that call for custard and it also has a nice rich flavor. It's what I always use now. I'll share a little secret with you, when I make my custard, I add a tablespoon of orange liquor to it while cooking.

The sequence of events is easy and there is only one rule. Make the custard at the very end because it needs the most attention. You'll be constantly stirring while it cooks and you'll be frequently stirring while letting it cool so that it doesn't develop that layer of "skin" on the surface. Trust me, you'll want to do it this way. For the rest of it, slice the strawberries in half and set aside, cut the bananas in half lengthwise and then slice the halves into 1 inch pieces and set aside, and take your pound cake and slice it in 1/2 inch slices and then cut those in half. You might want to get a second pound cake just in case you come up short. I don't really pay too much attention to how thick or thin I slice it, so sometimes I 've come up short and you don't want that to happen. In a bowl, pour the raspberry preserves and add the grand marnier or brandy and stir until it turns to a thick syrup. If you need to add more liquid, either add a little more liquor or 1/4 cup of orange juice or water. Set that aside.

Now you can start your custard. Follow the directions carefully whether you're using the Jello instant or the Birds Powder. At this point, I will assume that you decided not to make it from scratch. Be sure to stir constantly when heating it up. Once cooked, you want to let it cool. I usually fill my sink with cold water 3 inches deep and set the pan in it and stir. You want it to be warm and just beginning to solidify. Now we're ready to start the layering process. At the bottom of the trifle dish, pour a thin layer of the custard and spread it evenly at the bottom of your dish. Now cover the bottom with a layer of the sliced pound cake and sprinkle that generously with the sherry. Pour some of the raspberry preserves over that and spread it evenly to cover the pound cake. Next, take some sliced strawberries and line them cut side out around the glass so that you will be able to see them through the bowl. Take a mixture of the strawberries and bananas and spread evenly one layer onto the preserves. Finally, pour a nice layer of the custard over the berries and bananas. You have just assembled your first layer. Now just repeat until you nearly reach the top. Before you lay the final top layer of strawberries, half whip the whipping cream and pour it evenly across the final layer. Now set your strawberries on the top with the uncut side up and those raspberries? Well sprinkle them in the middle just like the picture shows.

You are finished and your dessert is ready for presentation. Set it in the fridge until ready to serve this impressive dish. I usually refrigerate it for a few hours so that the custard has nicely set. To serve, just spoon it like you would ice cream. You can also put a tablespoon or two of softened vanilla ice cream on top. Without fail, every time I have made this dessert it has been a hit. It never fails. And it's so easy to make and it doesn't take very long at all, about an hour and a half total time, if that.


  1. I've seen so many lady fingers in the groceries this time of year - what a gorgeous dessert to put them to use.

  2. This is a beautiful trifle. I made my first trifle after reading Nigella, but yours is much more impressive than anything I've ever made. Perfect for holiday dinner!

  3. I've never made a trifle , this makes me want to try it.

  4. This is beautiful. I will be making this for a post xmas house party! Stay tune!

  5. I am late at replying but this looks soo nice and elgant!