#300 Trifle

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

Dr Samuel Johnson: Trifle hater 
(but then he was a grumpy old bastard and did hate everything) 

Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle         

Michelangelo: Trifle appreciator

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.

A plate from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Houshold Management,
the trifle is on the bottom left

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.

Don’t I look pleased with myself!?

#269 Elizabeth David’s Everlasting Syllabub

I made this syllabub to end to the little meal Hugh and I cooked for Maartin and Ninja. I’d had a feeling no one had tried one before as they have gone out of fashion rather. I’d only had one in my life before.
Syllabubs were very popular up until recently. Originally they were simply a mixture of ales or cider mixed with milk or cream, which was probably like a boozy curds-and-whey. The more solid, whipped and ever-lasting syllabubs first appeared in the seventeenth century, according to Griggers, although both were kinds were obviously eaten because recipes for both appear in the Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffauld from 1769 (I have recently got hold of a copy of it).
The recipe in English Food, is from a pamphlet called Syllabubs and Fruit Fools, written by the great Elizabeth David, but I thought I’d give this one from Elizabeth Raffauld too, you know, for those of you who want to keep it real. And have your own cow….
“To make a Syllabub under the cow
Put a bottle of strong beer and a pint of cider into a punch bowl, grate in a small nutmeg and sweeten it to your taste. Then milk as much milk from the cow as will make a strong froth and the ale look clear. Let it stand an hour, then strew over it a few currants well washed, picked, and plumped before the fire. Then send it to the table.
Brilliant. Sounds awful.
Anyway, here the recipe from Ms David:
This serves four to six. Bear in mind that you have to start this one the day before you want to serve it.
To a small bowl, add 4 fluid ounces of white wine or sherry (I went with wine, as sherry seemed a bit too rich), 2 tablespoons of brandy and the pared rind and juice of a lemon. Cover the bowl and let the flavours infuse together overnight. Strain everything into a large bowl and dissolve into the liquor two ounces of caster sugar. Next slowly mix in half a pint of double cream and grate in some nutmeg. Whisk the syllabub until it almost reaches the stiff peak stage so it is still a little floppy. Don’t over-whip it. There’s nothing worse than over-whipped cream; it goes all weird and cloying. You have been warned. Spoon onto glasses or ramekins and cover with foil or cling film. Leave them somewhere cool. Sir Kenelm Digby in 1669 recommends ‘[a] tiny sprig of rosemary or a little twist of lemon peel’, so I pared some thin pieces of lemon peel and let those stand in sugar overnight too as a traditional garnish. I served them with those little caramelised biscuits you get with coffee, I forget their name.
#269 Elizabeth David’s Everlasting Syllabub. Quite a boozy affair, this dessert, and I have never really got used to alcoholic puds, we just do eat them these days. However, as far as those kinds of desserts go, this was a good one, and nothing like the awfulness that was the Whim-Wham. The lemon and the fact it was a whipped dessert made it feel lighter than it was. Hugh ended up scoffing loads of them and made himself sick. Oh dear. I can’t scoff, cos I did exactly the same with the Whim-Wham. 6/10.

Valentine’s Day – # 28 & 29

I’ve been a bit poor recently with the upkeep of this blog, so I’ll start with Valentine’s Day – least Thursday. If there’s Grigsons for special occasions one simply has to make them. So it was a choice between Sweetheart Cake or Valentine’s Day Syllabub; I went with the latter. The Grigson suggested making Elegant Sugar Thins to go with. The process for both required some prep the day before. For the syllabub add a splash of white wine, a good squeeze of lemon juice plus the grated zest, a dash of brandy and a big tablespoon of honey to a bowl and leave to infuse. For the bikkies, I simply made the mixture and let it firm up in the fridge shaped into a sausage. There were three – yes count them, three – options for the flavoring; lemon, vanilla or cinnamon. I went with vanilla, as I am loving it the moment after the rice pudding I did last week. The mixture was a basic biscuit one really – I really should find out how much of the Grigson’s recipes I can put in the blog without getting done… I only needed about a third of the mixture for the next day, so I’ve frozen the rest.

On the day, it was pretty straight forward: pour in a small tub of double cream into the lemony mixture and whip up. Place in two wine glasses and a sprinkle of toasted almonds. The Sugar Thins needed slicing very thinly and then sprinkled with sugar. They took only 7 minutes to cook in a hot oven.

For the main course I made chilli baked eggs – a recipe from another excellent book – Leiths Vegetarian Bible. This book is excellent – the recipes are all of such high quality. Most of the hundreds of recipes are traditional and not hippy cuisine at all.

All-in-all Greg and I had a lovely romantic evening, filling our faces and drinking wine as you can see by the photo – I do apologise for the depressing background of drying washing and part-built kitchen cabinets…

FYI: noone really knows who St Valentine was,and it may be a day that celebrates several saints all called Valentine. Also, the association with love and romance seems to have been completely made up as part of a story by Chaucer. I am officially a font of all knowledge…

#28 Valentine’s Day Syllabub: 5/10. When I first started eating it I thought it was lovely, but then the wine and brandy made it too rich and bitter for me. I’d have preferred it with just honey and lemon methinks!

#29 Elegant Sugar Thins: 8/10. Lovely delicate, sweet, crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth. I’m so glad I’ve made a big stash of the mixture in the freezer!

Greg says:
#28 Valentine’s Day Syllabub: 6.5/10. I think I liked this more than Neil did, he doesn’t really like boozy foods though. As usual however we tried to eat too much of it, but I think if you got a little egg cup’s worth in a fancy-pants restaurant you’d appreciate it much more. WHEN NEIL GETS A BLOODY DINING TABLE HINT HINT then we can share the wealth a little more. Are you listening?? Any road, the bitterness is nicely offset by these: #29 Elegant Sugar Thins: 8/10. Ooh I like a good thin, me: butter, lemon, cheese or sugar, you names it, I likes it. You could just sit and eat these all night with a brew in fact, they’re like a really classic sweet little biscuit from your Gran’s ‘parlour’. Muchos yum.