The Trifle – A Truly Decadent Dessert

Seren Evans - Charrington, Food Historian


There was a time when the English banquet table would have been gracefully adorned with sugar plums, syllabubs, flummeries, junkets and trifles.  Today the only well known pudding from this list would be the trifle.

The trifle is no trivial dessert, for this layered melange of sponge cake soaked in alcohol, fruit, custard and cream is rich not just in calories but in history.

Whilst there is no exact record of the origin of the name trifle; what is certain is that as early as 1598 the translator, John Florio, referred to ''A kinde of clouted creame called a foole or a trifle in English.'' Like the spellings of 1598, the trifle has changed over centuries both in appearance, ingredients and taste.

During the Tudor period a trifle was a recipe that combined cream and rosewater, flavoured with ginger, other exotic spices and sugar; to create a light frothy dessert, closer to a syllabub (cream whipped with liquor) than a modern-day trifle.

By the middle of the 18th century, trifle recipes had come to include ratafia (almond-flavoured biscuits) or macaroons soaked in sweet wine, covered with custard and topped with whipped cream. The first recognisably modern trifle appeared in the fifth (1755) edition of Hannah Glasse’s, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Since then hundreds of variations have turned up in cookery books and a trifle is now a dessert that is available in a variety of different flavours from chocolate to butterscotch, but the sherry trifle is still thought of as ‘traditional’ and ‘a must’ at Christmas time.

During the Victorian era the trifle soared in popularity; as it was a fantastic way to use up left over sponge, fruit and cream. However, the trifle became a victim of its own success and by the 1970’s it had become an unattractive restaurant cliché.  Suddenly the trifle belonged to the era of the sweet trolley and worse still for many retro children their taste of trifle would be that of the packet trifle with its pink, glutinous blancmange, synthetic cream topping sprinkled with multi-coloured sugar strands. Trifle was exploited as a cheap, easy option, high in sugar and fat, low on imagination that skimped on good quality ingredients and was created without any thought of what it could be or what it had once been.

Thankfully, since nearly everyone in Britain has grown up with memories of the trifle, it has encountered a revival, partly because of nostalgia and partly because when a trifle is made with imagination it is one of the tastiest and indulgent puds around.

The basic ingredients of a trifle are always the same: sponge cake soaked in alcohol, covered with a layer of fruit and then an egg custard, all topped by whipped cream. The top is traditionally decorated with angelica (a plant stem crystallized with sugar) and glacé cherries, but there are just so many modern options, indeed the range of flavours and possibilities for the trifle are endless, however, the one rule is to serve the trifle so that its layers are visible and can be appreciated.

With such a long and proud history, the trifle deserves a revamp and is worthy of a high ranking position on the British dessert menu.

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