The first time I can remember eating trifle was after a birthday meal in college. My good friend Russell Cook, a Richmond-based chef who also happens to be a fellow trifle fan, sent me home from his restaurant bearing a take-out tin layered with cake, strawberries, custard and whipped cream. I sat on my bed in the wee hours eating every bit of it. It was just about the most decadent ending to a birthday night that I could imagine.
And that's one of the wonderful things about trifle — it's at once so simple and so luxurious, so humble and so hoity-toity, innocent yet sexy. There's something about it that hits our basest food pleasure points. Perhaps that's why celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, the ultimate culinary hedonist, is such a big fan of the dessert. On her website, Nigella.com, she writes in the headnote of her Anglo-Italian Trifle recipe: "I don't think I could write a book that didn't include a recipe for trifle somewhere."
It's a concept that most likely has its roots in my favorite way to cook: Someone had a bit of leftover cake and came up with a great way to repurpose it. Trifle is said to date back a few hundred years to England, and this jumble of textures has become a national favorite in that country, often being served at birthday parties and after a big Sunday meal.
Traditionally, it's some kind of cake (typically sponge) moistened with some type of booze (typically sweet sherry) and layered with custard and jam or perhaps fresh fruit, all topped with whipped cream. But for the people of Britain, there is one ingredient that trumps all others: nostalgia. It's the dish that everyone's Gran makes better than anyone else's, and if Gran made it with what the Brits call "jelly," a fruity red gelatin that some people view as an essential trifle ingredient, then a jellyless version won't do.
Lawson recommends buying the cake layer because it's unlikely that anyone would notice the effort if you made your own. But if you have the time and you're up for the challenge, you can make many components from scratch. It's not complicated, although making the custard, the whipped cream and maybe even the cake does dirty a lot of dishes and pans.
But it can also be a no-fuss dessert that you throw together out of things you have in the freezer and the pantry. If you have frozen berries, jam, pudding mix, a can of whipped cream and a frozen pound cake on hand, you've got yourself a trifle.
Of course, fresh fruit is always preferable to frozen, and it's one ingredient that Irish-born chef Cathal Armstrong, owner of Restaurant Eve and a handful of other restaurants in Alexandria, Va., won't budge on. He makes several versions of this comfort food for his restaurants, especially around St. Patrick's Day. And while he sometimes bases it on his mother's recipe, he doesn't need to rely on the canned fruit she once used probably because it was cheaper, easier and more readily available.
"The one area that we would never make exception to is the quality of the fruit we're using," he says of his own trifle. "That one step, not shortcutting there, will really make the trifle a whole lot better."
Good summer variations could employ tropical or flag-colored fruits, as with two of the recipes below, and winter spins could feature almonds and clementines, chocolate and cherries, or passion fruit and ginger. If you don't want to use alcohol, any fruit juice will do — although Armstrong says heating the sherry to 155 degrees will burn off the alcohol while keeping the essential sherry flavor.
The dessert is generally served in a trifle bowl — a pedestaled glass bowl that shows off all those glorious layers. "The prized display in someone's home would be the trifle bowl," Armstrong says of his native land. For entertaining purposes, however, it's fun to make individual servings in wineglasses or even old-timey Mason jars — a good way to make it portable for picnics. And because this should be a no-stress dessert, don't worry if you don't have a trifle bowl. Any appropriately sized glass bowl will do.
Since I'm not from Great Britain, I have no sentimental attachment to any particular trifle recipe. I'm a freewheeling, willy-nilly, equal opportunity trifle lover, which leaves me open to trying all sorts of interpretations to this versatile dessert, picking and choosing from the many, many varieties out there, tailoring my concoctions to highlight my favorite ingredients.
The recipes here are twists on the beloved original. And while traditionalists and British transplants may balk at the idea of updating a national treasure, I'm not about to try to compete with anyone's Gran.