It’s funny how one word can mean such different things to different people. You can apply that logic to almost anything, but trifle is undoubtedly one such word. It may be, figuratively, a mere whimsey, but the Wikipedia article describes it thus:
The earliest known use of the name trifle was for a thick cream flavoured with sugar, ginger and rosewater, the recipe for which was published in England, 1596, in a book called “The good huswife’s Jewell” by Thomas Dawson. It wasn’t until sixty years later when milk was added and the custard was poured over alcohol soaked bread. Research indicates it evolved from a similar dessert known as a fool or foole, and originally the two names were used interchangeably. While some people consider the inclusion of gelatin to be a recent variation, the earliest known recipe to include jelly dates from 1747, and the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of trifles containing jelly in 1861.
To me “trifle” conjures up memories of being at my grandmother’s house while she made trifle for tea. It consisted of sponges with fruit, often a tin of fruit cocktail, soaked in raspberry jelly, custard made from the tin, topped with Nestles sterilised cream. My role, being a youngster at the time, was to chop the remaining jelly and make a pattern on the top which usually consisted of a ring of chopped jelly on the outside, then a cross of St George within. Toasted almonds or grated chocolate would then be sprinkled over and the whole assembly vanished into the fridge for several hours, to be served as the piece de resistance some hours later, after salad with ham, cheese or tinned salmon.
Look in the shops and you can find many variants on the layered trifle theme (chocolate trifle even!), quite apart from how all trifles look and taste different – as witnessed in these photographs.
When I got married, Jean’s family came from an altogether different tradition. Her grandfather, being Italian, used his mother’s recipe, which never included cream on the top. Every family has their own variation. Jamie’s mum’s trifle doesn’t appeal to me (sorry, Jamie’s mum), though Delia’s “traditional” trifle is a little better – more like the Tambini family recipe. However she sticks to the original definition by not using jelly.
For me the whole point of the layered assembly is to make each flavour and texture stand out and combine to perfection. Starting with the sponge, the best results are by using Naples Biscuits (also known as “ladyfingers” among other things, distinct from “lady’s fingers” aka okra!) That recipe includes vanilla, but the original versions include rosewater, which is closer to the origins of the trifle. I do like the idea of using a good quality raspberry or other jam on the sponges, though draw the line at commercial swiss rolls, which simply don’t have the right texture.
The inclusion of alcohol to soak up the sponges is wonderful and adds a more grown-up touch to what might otherwise be a retro kiddy treat. But what? Sweet sherry if you like sweet sherry, though port would be a trifle more sophisticated. If you have a drier palate try dry sherry, though in principle you could use whatever alcohol appeals. For a cherry flavour, try cherry brandy; for coffee flavour Kahlua (and coffee-flavoured custard too!); any liqueur would add piquancy to your trifle, but be careful not to overpower the flavour or to conflict with the jam.
Let the alcohol soak in and chill before you add the next layer, which should be fruit and then custard. For the fruit, go with whatever is good and in season. Berries and other soft fruits work well but as per the other recipes you can use almost anything works. I’d prefer fresh whole fruit, though some obviously lend themselves better to being stewed – rhubarb for example, depending on your preferences. It is a good idea to add sugar to the fruit though, and my preference would be for crunchy brown sugar, for flavour, colour and texture. If you choose bananas, just add a touch of lemon juice to prevent them oxidising and changing colour if you prepare your trifle in advance.
Proper home-made vanilla custard is wonderful – and can be flavoured to combine with the other ingredients, but if you don’t have the time then supermarkets do do a reasonable imitation – albeit thickened by starch rather than eggs. Personally I don’t go with the Birds-in-a-tin option, but you may like it. Apparently a lot of people do!
Arguably you should build up layers of sponge, different fruits and custard but that might be a little OTT for a simple trifle. Anyway, whether or not you choose to add a layer of thick cream on top (and if not, do keep it on the side for your guests to add their own), some fancy topping is essential – a combination of good-looking fruits and nuts works well but you can make up your own – even hundreds and thousands if you feel so inclined!!
Either way, chill and serve. The only people who will turn down this treat are those watching waistlines, and they may think it a trifle unwise…