Trifle (ˈtraɪf(ə)l), n.: A matter of little value or importance; ‘a thing of no moment’ (Johnson); a trivial, paltry, or insignificant affair.
Oxford English Dictionary
Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle
Is there nothing more English and impressive than a properly made trifle? I don’t think so. Indeed, it is the reason I have saved it for the landmark 300th recipe. Although its original meaning is one of ‘little value or importance‘, the trifles upon the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian banquet table had gained a great opulence becoming a splendid centerpiece lavishly layered up with brandies, sherries, wines, custard, cream, macaroons, cake, syllabub and cream, not to mention the candied fruits and comfits to decorate the top. Mrs Beeton shows off some of them in her Book of Household Management so that other cooks could emulate them in stately homes across England.
The trifle did start out from humble beginnings and was simply a fruit fool made up of puréed fruit and whipped cream. The earliest mention of the word trifle in the sense of a dessert, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the book A worlde of wordes, or most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English by John Florio published in 1598. However, as the dessert became a vehicle for shrewd cooks to use up left over biscuits and cakes, it quickly evolved into a more complex dish altogether.
So what makes a trifle? By the mid-eighteenth century, it had pretty much become the layered beast we know of today, though there was no fruit involved. It was made of macaroons soaked in wine followed by a layer of custard atopped by a syllabub and ‘different coloured sweetmeats and small shot comfits…figures and flowers‘, according to Elizabeth Raffauld’s 1769 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. Trifle purists today insist that this sort of trifle is the classic recipe and if a trifle were to contain fruit and – heaven forbid! – no alcohol then it is simply not a trifle.
By the early nineteenth century, there were many more additions – spiced cake and fruit jams and jellies for instance, often cream was exchanged for syllabub.
Then, in the twentieth century, the trifle had its downfall. Here is what Jane Grigson says about the pud:
‘A pudding worth eating, not the mean travesty made with yellow, packaged sponge cakes, poor sherry and powdered custards.’
That is her entire introduction to the recipe! I have to say I used to love (and still do love) my Mum’s trifle; a layer of tinned fruit, Swiss roll and jelly, with powdered custard and then whipped cream. I remember once trying a ‘proper’, i.e. sherry, trifle and it was simply disgusting. I hoped that the trifle in here would both look and taste impressive, but all I could think of was that vile sherry trifle and the stomach-churningly rich Whim-Wham I made a couple of years back for the blog.
So, with a certain amount of trepidation, I started to construct this pudding worth eating. Hopefully everyone who was coming round to my apartment would also think it worth eating too…
The first thing you need to do before you even consider making your trifle is to get hold of a nice bowl or dish to hold it in. I went for a classic stemmed glass trifle dish, nice and big and only $15. Bargain.
Now for the trifle itself: Start off by placing eight or so large macaroons in the base of your bowl. Break up some to fill in any gaps that may be there. By macaroons, I don’t mean coconut, but the old fashioned almond, or French, macaroons. These are quite tricky to get hold of and you won’t find them in a supermarket or even most bakeries. The best thing to do is phone around some French bakeries, or do as I did and keep it real by actually make your own. I took elements from an eighteenth century recipe by Elizabeth Raffauld and a contemporary one by Martha Stewart (see it here). Next, pour ¼ of a pint of a good dessert wine over them; Griggers suggests Frontignan, Malaga or Madeira wine. I went with Frontignan – not tricky to get hold hold of, but does more often go under the pseudonym of Muscat wine. Along with the wine, add two tablespoons of brandy.
Next make the custard by boiling a pint of single cream in a saucepan (any Americans out there, use coffee cream or half and half). Whilst you wait for it come to a boil, whisk together two large eggs, two large egg yolks and tablespoon of plain flour in a bowl. When the cream comes to a boil, tip it over the eggs whisking vigorously as you go, then pour it back into your saucepan and stir over a low heat for a few minutes until it becomes nice and thick. Add sugar to taste – I went with around three tablespoons in the end. Remember to make it slightly sweeter than you prefer as cold food will not taste quite as sweet as hot. Pour the custard over the soaked macaroons and allow to cool. In fact it is best to leave it over night.
Don’t be thinking that there is time for idling though, for there is a syllabub to conjure up! The syllabub recipe has already appeared in the blog before so I won’t go through it here. Check out the recipe here and use the same wines as before to make it. Note that the syllabub requires an overnight steep as part of its prep.
When the custard has firmed up, spread a good layer of raspberry jam over it and then spoon over the Everlasting Syllabub. Lastly, decorate with ratafia biscuits and some sweetmeats such as candied peel and comfits. Jane says to avoid tacky things like angelica and glace cherries, but I went with those nice cherries in syrup that are stones but have their stalks intact.
Leave the trifle somewhere cool for a while – a larder or pantry is better than a fridge, but in Houston, the refrigerator is the only option!
#300 Trifle. Three hundred recipes also means I am two-thirds of the way through English Food and what a recipe to choose! It took a good amount of time to make, but it was so, so worth it. The sweet wines blended perfectly with the light, fresh creams and custards in such a wonderful way, and the almond biscuits on the top and bottom layers gave it a nutty, scented quality and the sweet raspberry jam lent a subtle fruitiness. There was no hint of alcoholic acridity like I expected. In fact I had two helpings and then when everyone had left, I polished the rest off! Excellent, excellent, excellent. And worth eating! 10/10.