Put your hands together for trifle

For more than 400 years the versatile trifle has held its own on our festive dining tables, despite upstart competition. Andrew Webb ponders on the secret to its sweet success.

Put your hands together for trifle

You can tell a lot about a person by what’s in their trifle. This festive favourite, found on many a dining table over Christmas, is more than a mere pudding; it’s a powerful prism, splitting the white light of Britishness into a culinary spectrum of regional cooking, social background and family traditions. There are those, for example, who see jelly as an abomination and others who insist on it (I side with the latter). Then there are those who think fruit is a no-no, while for others it’s the very reason to buy tinned clementine segments.

The history of trifle begins, simply enough, with a recipe entitled ‘trifle’ appearing in Thomas Dawson’s 1585 cookery book, The Good Huswifes Jewell, but this early version describes something more akin to what we now think of as a fool. Indeed, the words fool, syllabub and trifle were used interchangeably for a period. But slowly, over the next 100 years, trifle broke away from the other delicate fruit and cream concoctions and came to mean something bolder, boozier and more solid.

By 1751 Hannah Glasse, the fabled 18th-century English cookery writer, had taken up trifle’s cause in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, adding custard and sack- (sherry) soaked cake. And by the late Victorian era, trifle had become a gaudy riot of fruit, cream, booze, jam, jelly, candied fruit and comfits (sugar-coated caraway seeds, replaced today by hundreds and thousands).

Anyone fancy a dollop of mayo?
It hasn’t always been about unadulterated deliciousness. Trifle, published in 2001 and written by Helen Saberi and the late food historian Alan Davidson, charts the rise and fall of this plump princess of puds. Their research unearthed various manifestations of the dish, which absorbed influences from across the Empire. There’s a recipe for ‘Indian trifle’, featuring rice and cinnamon; a recipe with coconut milk; another with coffee. Helen, inspired by the cuisine of her Afghan husband, gives a recipe using quince and yogurt.

Then there are the oddities: The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (1890s) contains a recipe for ‘savoury trifle’ in which the cake is replaced with fried bread, and lobster and mayonnaise are used instead of fruit and custard. Meanwhile, Florence Petty’s The Pudding Lady (1910) tempts the reader with a ‘beef trifle’ made with beef, gravy and horseradish with breadcrumbs on top. Whichever ingredients you choose (except perhaps the beef), they need to be shown off. Trifle looks best in a glass bowl, so you can see the layers.

Forever in vogue
During the rest of the year, save for the odd party, trifle can look a little lost – nudged out by filling pastry puddings or Johnny-come-lately chocolate cakes. But come Christmas, when everything’s a little over the top, it’s exactly what’s called for. There’s something slightly bawdy about a good trifle. It’s a dish that has reinvented itself over the centuries (if Madonna were a pudding, she’d be a trifle). It appeals to children and adults alike; it can be homely or mass-produced, boozy and grown-up or sugary and innocent. Perhaps trifle’s strength is that it doesn’t rule out any flavours or ingredients, welcoming one and all with open arms like the perfect host greeting guests. It’s the ultimate good-time pud.


Trifle recipes

Fruit jelly trifle

Fruit jelly trifle

Trifle is a quintessentially British dish and no English soirée should be without one.

Classic trifle

Classic trifle

This old-style trifle recipe is so easy to make a day ahead, and it tastes amazing.

Boozy caramelised pear trifles with pear crisps

Boozy caramelised pear trifles with pear crisps

This is the perfect post-Christmas meal dessert; it's light, creamy and fruity and just a little bit boozy.

Toffee apple trifle

Toffee apple trifle

This delectable trifle is made using storecupboard and fridge staples.

Italian trifle

Italian trifle

These trifles are naughty yet nice and can be made up to 2 hours in advance.

Blackberry, marshmallow and mascarpone trifles

Blackberry, marshmallow and mascarpone trifles

This beautifully fruity trifle recipe with surprise marshmallows is a chic end to a dinner party.

Strawberry, Vin Santo and mascarpone trifle

Strawberry, Vin Santo and mascarpone trifle

This Italian trifle recipe is a bit more glam than the one granny used to make! The saltiness of the pistachios balances the sweetness nicely.

Boozy chocolate and cherry trifle

Boozy chocolate and cherry trifle

This trifle is a very creative pud, and one that looks lovely on the dinner table. It's boozy too, so one for the adults!

Fig and marsala trifle with toasted meringue

Fig and marsala trifle with toasted meringue

Try this trifle with a delicious difference. The figs in marsala give it a kick while the white chocolate and meringue make it dreamy.

Eggnog trifles with mixed berry compote

Eggnog trifles with mixed berry compote

An sophisticated trifle with mixed berries, that's perfect for a special dinner party.

Raspberry, sherry and nut trifle

Raspberry, sherry and nut trifle

A simple, quick and delicious trifle, updated with amaretti biscuits and chopped toasted hazelnuts.

Coffee mascarpone 'trifles' with caramel walnuts

Coffee mascarpone 'trifles' with caramel walnuts

Coffee lovers will go mad for these coffee ‘trifles’ with caramel walnuts - and no wonder, with so many tasty things in each serving.

 

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