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Cooking the Classics: English Trifle

Cooking the Classics: English Trifle

Traditional English trifle might just be the oldest documented English dessert: let's focus on the recipe made with ladyfinger, berries and a soft cream.

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The name itself is a set-up for self-embarrassment. Oh, yeah, it’s just a trifle to make, no big deal. Tell that to my ladyfinger, strawberry and cream-strewn kitchen. Traditional English trifle, that most English of desserts (with apologies to my personal favorite, sticky toffee pudding), looks spectacular and demands a specially-made presentation bowl that looks like a gigantic cognac glass.

English trifle might just be the oldest documented English dessert, with a reference in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewell. Written in 1585 (long before spellcheck had been invented), it includes a dish called trifle that is little more than spoon-thick cream flavored with rosewater, ginger and sugar. But to know about trifle, we have to know about fool. Twelve years after Dawson’s book was published, another book included both trifle and foole (that darn spellcheck again). Fool is a combination of custard (and later custard mixed with whipped cream) and stewed fruit, originally gooseberries.

Traditional English Trifle Recipe

While the name sounds like the start of an Abbott and Costello routine (“What are you making?” “Fool.” “Don’t call me names, I just asked what you’re making…”), it likely stems from the French fouler, to crush, as in smashing the fruit before boiling it. The 1598 recipe saw the stewed fruit mixed into the custard (not to be confused with Norfolk fool, which is either fool in which the fruit is added to the top of the custard at the end, or a doofus from Norfolk).

Modern trifle is something of a combination of several desserts, the traditional trifle and fool with some added pizzazz. In the 1747 The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse included a recipe for trifle that included a jelly/gelatin (made from boiling down antlers or bones—a bane to 18th century vegans everywhere). By this stage, if not before, the dessert was a big hit, with Oliver Wendell Holmes writing admiringly of trifle with jelly in 1861.

So what, exactly, is in the trifle that I’ll try to make? It’s a sort of smooshy layer cake of ladyfingers or sponge cake soaked in sherry, stewed and/or fresh fruit, custard and whipped cream. If made nicely it looks spectacular, a nice centerpiece for a table when shown off in a glass bowl (or preferably that gigantic cognac glass). You could, of course, integrate all the ingredients and it would taste the same but look like a mess. The proper way is to layer.

How to Make English Trifle Dessert

First I take ladyfingers and soak them in Madeira. That much I can handle with minimal collateral damage. I halve fresh strawberries and stew blueberries, which I’ll mix with gelatin to make a jelly. Now the custard, which I must say I’m dreading, because it is eminently burnable. I simmer milk, cream and sugar at the lowest heat.

Meanwhile in a separate bowl (which I always try to avoid, because more bowls mean more to clean) I mix egg yolks and sugar. Then I slowly pour the warm milk/cream mixture into the egg mixture. Then strain this through a sieve back into the saucepan, which goes back over a low heat. I manage not to over-boil or burn anything—a small victory. But then, the whipping cream incident.

I’ve got one step left, which is to take cream and whip it into, well, whipped cream. All is going smoothly until my overzealous mechanical whipping sends creamy shrapnel across the room. And the cutting board on which I sliced the strawberries is oozing strawberry juice onto the counter. But no one was hurt during the operation, and with all my components, I begin to layer, as artfully as I can, in the gigantic cognac glass. This is fun, and my kids would love to help out (though I fear strawberry juice is staining). Because I am the opposite of a perfectionist (an imperfectionist is perhaps the best term), my trifle is not exactly an architectural masterpiece. The strawberries fall over and everything is a bit too liquid and becomes a single messy, albeit delicious, unit. If I could get someone to clean up after me, I might do this regularly.

Not planning to make trifle all that often? I can’t say I blame you. But I’m stuck with a gigantic cognac glass… Between trifles, I can always use it to sip gigantic portions of cognac…

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