I have often made trifles in the middle of the night. Trifle – consisting of frozen raspberries, my aunt’s jam, home-made sponge and masses of booze – was as important as Christmas pudding when I was growing up and I’ve been known to finish them at 2am on Christmas Day.
We depended on its high alcohol content to relax my granny (a teetotaller – it usually worked). The trifle was luscious and improved with time. I could be found sneaking spoonfuls of it in the wee small hours on Boxing Day (the stolen spoonful is so much more delicious than the permitted one).
It’s a pity this great English pudding should be served mostly at Christmas, and that its name means 'something insignificant’. Along with bread-and-butter pudding, it’s one of the best dishes we’ve given the world.
Generally I like dishes to be 'authentic’ (even though that’s problematic when it comes to food), but trifle has gone through many mutations. The first 'trifle’ to be written about (in 1596) is more of a fool, the cream flavoured with ginger and rosewater. Cookery writer Hannah Glasse published a recipe for a 'trifle’ more like the one we know – using biscuits, booze, custard and syllabub – in 1751. There’s no fruit, but she suggests decorating it with 'currant jelly and flowers’.
Mary Berry believes jelly has no place in a trifle but I think the inclusion of jelly (or not) now seems to be a matter of snobbery. The only reason I don’t put jelly in mine is that I can’t be bothered.
A trifle can be what you want it to be. If you fancy a child-pleasing, all-singing all-dancing number with jelly, peaches and strawberries, go for it. But these are the guidelines I follow:
A trifle should have cake (or 'crumbs’, though they can be from crushed biscuits or even breadcrumbs fried with sugar). I use Victoria or a whisked sponge (bought or home-made), though there’s nothing wrong with chocolate or ginger cake if they’re with a complementary fruit. I’m less keen on boudoir biscuits – they either stay too crisp or disintegrate completely – and bought trifle sponges taste commercial.
The custard should be quite thick – you should be able to dollop it – and there’s nothing wrong with buying a tub of good-quality stuff.
For me, fruit is essential. It should be ripe or gently cooked. I’ve used tropical fruits, stewed apples and blackberries, poached pears… everything you can think of.
Booze: you can use sherry, Marsala, apple brandy or whisky, and I make a great fig and pomegranate trifle with port. I finish with softly whipped cream or syllabub – or both (don’t shout, it’s my trifle).
So, let your imagination run riot. The only thing to remember is that a trifle isn’t a 'thing of no consequence’. It’s really rather magnificent.