Forget decking the halls, in my life it’s the prospect of the Christmas trifle that has me chortling like the rotund old fella in the red suit. And I’m not alone. This time of year, the number of people searching online for trifle recipes booms – up some 1600 per cent. That’s no trifling increase.
The trifles they’re looking for are a million miles away from the first trifles created in Renaissance England in the 16th century. They were little more than set creams flavoured with ginger or rosewater. Over the centuries the dessert evolved, with booze-splashed biscuits, custard and an airy syllabub joining the party. Fruit, first as jam or candied and then fresh or stewed, was the final addition, with the biscuits often replaced with stale sponge for soaking up the booze.
Today’s trifles are the chameleons of the dessert world, morphing between flavour profiles and ingredients, and ranging in tone from the nursery to how-posh-are-you-in-your-tiara elegance. They must, however, have something custardy, something creamy and something cakey or biscuity softened with booze or fruit juice. They mustn’t drift into tiramisù territory. Here, then, are my top tips for terrific trifle.
IF IN DOUBT, GO TRADITIONAL
You’re not making a trifle to wow your Insta pals. My cover star features cherries, not strawberries with cucumber, say. I knew exactly the look I’d get from my daughter if I’d gone down that route.
MATCH THE FLAVOURS
Great trifles contrast texture but keep the flavours in the layers harmonious.
MAKE THE ELEMENTS IN ADVANCE
It’s all about the planning. At least make the jelly or bake the sponge the day before. You can make the custard on the day, but it’s best cooled before using; I like Shannon Bennett’s tip to whisk the custard until it’s cool, which makes it lighter and ready to use quicker.
The bowl should be glass so you can see the layers. A trifle is a centrepiece and I think a large straight-sided bowl is the most dramatic choice.
We have loads of brilliant fruit at Christmas so it’s only right to plan your trifle around something seasonal and then build the flavours from there. You might choose chocolate custard and an almond cake to go with impeccable nectarines, or a dark chocolate cake splashed with kirsch to go with the season’s best cherries. The fruit can be fresh, poached, macerated, used for jelly, set in jelly, or a combination of all.
THE CAKEY LAYERS
Two things decide what you should use here: the trifle’s flavour profile and its moisture level. The wetter the trifle, the denser the cake it will accommodate. Think sponge, pannetone or yesterday’s horse- chaff muffins (that no one wanted to eat, unsurprisingly) for drier trifles. For wetter trifles, Madeira cake, gingerbread or biscuits such as sponge fingers, macaroons and crushed amaretti work well. Denser stuff like brownies and blondies, banana bread or shortbread can also work, but I use these in individual trifles that are composed in a glass where softness is not so prized.
While sherry, dessert wine and even port are traditional, don’t write-off using spirits and liqueurs like Amaretto, Frangelico, or Campari if they’re complementary to the other flavours used. Remember to splash, not soak – no one wants a sludge, or a trifle so boozy you’ll be over the limit. You can also use fruit juice or cold teas instead for a teetotal trifle.
MOUSSE OR CUSTARD
Store-bought is fine, but making your own is so easy and far sexier. Either way, customise your custard with anything from pandan or lemon to chocolate or coffee. Custard can be substituted with crème pâtissière, a flavoured mousse or even, if you’re a trifle radical like Matt Moran, with gelato as in his trademark Gaytime trifle (see page 35).
Don’t overwhip the cream – you want soft, gentle peaks. Flavour it with a little icing sugar, rosewater or elderflower cordial, or even ripple it with a smooth fruit compote after whipping it.
It’s best to assemble the trifle when all the elements are cool. Some prefer to do it in advance so flavours can mingle and meld, but I prefer to go closer to when it’ll be eaten to avoid a sludgy trifle. I leave the garnishing until just before serving, though, to ensure no seepage.
When it comes to garnish there are no rules other than it must be edible and it should fit with the theme and flavours of your trifle. I’d steer clear of hundreds and thousands, though – most trifles don’t need any more sugar. Toasted slivered almonds, pistachios tossed in a little oil to make them glisten greener, or perhaps more of the fruit laced with a complementary herb, such as mint, tarragon or candied rosemary, are all a good place to start.
ASK WHO’S COMING
Any allergies out there? Accommodate those guests, too, and make a glutenfree sponge, avoid garnishes of pepitas or nuts, or make a mini trifle just for them without the offending elements.
There’s nothing wrong with bogan trifle. Make a stand against the trifle snobs and celebrate England’s cash-strappedpensioner trifle composed of nothing homemade – find my recipe for ‘one big whopper trifle’ at delicious.com.au. And, yes, it does use tinned peaches.