How to Make a Trifle


Look at the picture. See the layers of cake, pastry cream, fruit and whipped cream? What you can’t see is the addition of liqueur. Those are the components of a trifle and once you understand the concept, you can make it without a recipe. A trifle bowl will show off your pretty, tasty layers to their best advantage, but any clear bowl with relatively straight sides could be used. We generally start with cake followed by liqueur, pastry cream and fruit, then repeat those layers once or twice and top with whipped cream. This can be varied, as you like. Below are some general guidelines and some flavorful combination recommendations for your trifle desserts.

  • You need cake or some type of cake-like absorbent base; it can be fresh or a bit stale. Consider pound cake (purchased is fine), sponge cake, génoise, soft ladyfingers, chocolate cake or even gingerbread. You need enough to make two layers on your chosen dish or three layers if the bowl is especially deep.
  • Alcohol is typically sprinkled over the cake as liberally as you like. Sweet sherry is classic, but you could use Amaretto, cognac, limoncello, Frangelico, Grand Marnier, etc. – it all depends on your other flavors. If you want to forego the alcohol, you can use fruit juices or flavored-sugar syrup, like lemon simple syrup. Don’t skip this step though. You want the cake to be very moist. In our Gingerbread Trifle with Caramelized Pears recipe, we used the liquid from our poached pears.
  • You need a couple of cups of something creamy like pastry cream or custard. Don’t limit yourself to vanilla. Try coffee pastry cream, chocolate mousse, mascarpone mousse, lemon mousse or … you get the idea.
  • You could use jelly or jam interspersed as well. If you do, we recommend using an all-fruit spread. You don’t need the extra sweetness from traditional jelly.
  • We like to include fruit. Try poached pears, plums, apricots, or sweet or tart cherries in sweet syrup. Even some canned fruit like apricots are a great convenience product. Fresh or frozen raspberries work well, too.
  • Top the whole thing off with a nice, thick layer of lightly sweetened whipped cream.
  • Layer all of the above the day before serving. This allows and encourages the parts to come together in flavor and texture and the dessert is actually better after this rest.

Image: Nathan Jones

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