Why It Works
- Gently poaching berries in water will give you a vibrant and flavorful liquor to use as the jelly base.
- Cooling the jelly slightly before pouring it over the genoise sponge results in ideal absorption.
- Chilling the trifle bowl in advance sets the jelly faster, helping form distinct layers.
The trifle was once considered an unfashionable cliché, but thanks to its irresistible retro charm, the dessert has firmly re-established its place as a party classic across the UK. I challenge anyone not to feel joy when presented with this unapologetically decadent combination of wobbly fruit jelly, genoise sponge cake, crème légère, and whipped cream. Bursting with nostalgia, a classic trifle is a feat to be admired, especially when it’s built in a sharing-size glass bowl to show off its distinct layers.
The trifle made its official debut in the 1585 cookbook, The Huswives Jewell. In its early days, the trifle was nothing more than a creamy dessert flavored with rose water and ginger. It was also interchangeable with a fool, another classic English dessert that combined fruit purées with thickened cream. In the 18th century, author Hannah Glasse added a layer of jelly to the trifle recipe in her book The Art of Cookery and the trifle as we know it today was born. By the 19th century, the trifle had fully become a part of English popular culture. It has even been immortalized by poet Oliver Wendell Holmes who wrote of “that most wonderful object of domestic art called trifle…with its charming confusion of cream and cake and almonds and jam and jelly and wine and cinnamon and froth.”
Every year at Christmas, or during a particularly festive holiday like the Royal Jubilee (the Queen’s birthday), online searches for trifle spike. Nothing says “party” like a trifle, especially one made in a gloriously immodest-sized bowl for sharing. You can also build it in miniature form, offering up the dessert to your guests in individual glasses. No matter the size, it’s the perfect blank canvas for dessert. Although this recipe is for a classic mixed berry trifle studded with strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, you should let your imagination run wild. Each layer of the trifle can be adapted to suit your taste or the season.
Ripe juicy peaches poached in sweetened black tea in the summertime or pears simmered in spiced red wine for Christmas can easily be swapped in for the berries. You could also use store-bought fruit juice, like pomegranate or apple, as the base of your jelly if you don’t want to make your own poaching liquid. The custard, which should always complement the jelly or fruit, could be infused with cinnamon, or subbed in for chocolate pudding. You could even add a drizzle of salted caramel sauce when you build the layers up. Imagine roasting pineapples in rum and using the cooking liquor as the base for a boozy jelly and piling it up with coconut pastry cream for a pina colada trifle. You could suspend chocolate pound cake in espresso jelly, then finish it with mascarpone-infused cream for a trifled tiramisu. A trifle has no limits (although I haven't seen a savory one yet, I’m sure I could be convinced).
Making a trifle starts with preparing the jelly by poaching the fruit gently until tender. After straining the fruit, you'll layer it in the serving bowl with cubes of genoise sponge cake. If you're in a pinch, you can use store-bought ladyfingers or pound cake, but homemade genoise absorbs the trifle's liquid elements the most effectively and produces a superior final texture. The poaching liquid then gets thickened with gelatin and poured on top for the cake to happily soak up. As the sponge sits, it expands pleasingly as the jelly sets into a jiggly, fruit-and-cake studded jello. Fresh fruit goes on top of that, along with an optional but highly encouraged drizzle of sherry.
The whole affair is covered in luxurious crème legere—a whipped cream lightened with pastry cream—and topped with a final layer of softly whipped cream that's garnished with toppings like toasted sliced almonds and sprinkles.
When making a trifle, there is a degree of planning involved since the jelly has to set and the flavors need enough time to meld. But this also makes it a great dessert to assemble in advance, as it can sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours (any longer and the cream may begin to weep; you can always hold back that layer and add it at the last minute). A trifle is a show-stopping dessert that should always be presented to the table in all its glory. After the inevitable ooh-ing and ahh-ing subsides, dish it out directly into individual bowls with the largest spoon you can find.
- For the Jelly:
- 3/4 cup (150g) caster sugar (a.k.a. superfine sugar) or granulated sugar, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 1 pound (450g) mixed berries, such as strawberries (halved if large), blueberries, raspberries, and/or pitted cherries, washed (see note)
- Two 1/4-ounce envelopes unflavored gelatin (about 5 teaspoons; 14g)
- For Assembling the Trifle:
- 1/2 of an 8-inch genoise sponge cake, cut into 2- by 1-inch rectangles (see note)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons dry sherry (45ml to 60ml), optional
- 12 ounces (about 350g) mixed berries, such as strawberries (halved if large), blueberries, raspberries, and/or pitted cherries, washed, plus extra for garnish if desired
- One recipe crème légère
- 1 1/2 cups (350ml) heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons (25g) caster sugar (a.k.a. superfine sugar) or granulated sugar, or to taste, optional
- Sprinkles or toasted sliced almonds, optional
Place a 2-quart glass trifle bowl in refrigerator to chill.
To Make the Jelly: In a 3-quart saucepan, combine sugar, lemon juice, and 1 1/2 cups (350ml) water (see note) and heat over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved. Add berries and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, skimming any foam that accumulates on the surface, until berries are tender and have released their water, about 10 minutes (skimming off foam produces a clear jelly).
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together gelatin and 3 1/2 tablespoons (50ml) water. Set aside to let gelatin bloom.
Strain berry mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl, pressing gently on berries to extract as much poaching liquid as possible. Transfer poached berries to a medium bowl and set aside. Pour poaching liquid into a 1-quart measuring cup and add enough additional cold water to reach 2 1/4 cups (550ml). Taste and adjust with sugar if needed.
Pour 1/2 cup (120ml) of poaching liquid into now-empty saucepan and heat over low heat until steaming. Remove from heat and whisk in prepared gelatin mixture until homogenous and no gelatin lumps remain.
Whisk gelatin mixture into remaining poaching liquid, then transfer liquid to a medium bowl. Place bowl in an ice bath and chill, stirring occasionally, until jelly is slightly thickened and temperature reaches 60°F (16°C), 20 to 30 minutes.
To Assemble the Trifle: Remove trifle bowl from refrigerator and set on work surface. Line bottom of bowl with genoise sponge cake, top with reserved poached berries, and drizzle with sherry (if using). Pour cooled jelly on top and return bowl to refrigerator until jelly is set, about 2 hours.
Arrange fresh berries in an even layer on top of jelly (if desired, you can place the berries around the inside perimeter of the bowl in a decorative pattern, then fill the middle space with the remaining berries). Spread crème légère evenly over berries.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk heavy cream and sugar (if using) on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. The whipped cream should be spoonable and not stiff. (Alternatively, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk heavy cream by hand until soft peaks form).
Spoon whipped cream on top of crème légère and place trifle in refrigerator until cold, about 30 minutes. If desired, top whipped cream with additional berries, toasted almonds, or sprinkles. To serve, scoop generous portions into individual bowls and serve immediately.
2-quart glass trifle bowl, 3-quart saucepan, 1-quart measuring cup, stand mixer (optional)
For the fruit, I highly recommend using what’s in season. Berries and stone fruit work best. If available, you can use a combination of berries, such as strawberries (halved if large), blueberries, and/or raspberries. For stone fruit, you can use pitted cherries; if using larger stone fruit, it’s best to keep the fruit in larger pieces: ripe peaches, nectarines, and plums should be pitted and cut into 2 to 3-inch cubes. Taste the fruit and add sugar if it needs sweetening.
For the poaching liquid, you can change this up to suit the fruit. For a berry trifle, a lot of flavor comes from the berries, so I recommend using water. Stone fruit, however, work well with a stronger poaching liquid like wine or tea. For example, poaching pears with the peel of one lemon, white wine and cardamom, or star anise and red wine, or poaching peaches in lemon verbena tea will result in a vibrant and flavourful jelly. If you are adding spices, like cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods or star anise, make sure to strain out and discard any aromatics before making the jelly.
You can use store-bought pound cake or ladyfingers in place of the genoise sponge cake. If using shop-bought pound cake, you will need around 3 1/2 to 5 1/4 ounces (about 100g to150g) pound cake. If using ladyfingers, you will need around 12 ladyfingers to fully line the bottom of the trifle bowl.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Trifle can be assembled 24 hours in advance with the whipped cream, or up to 48 hours in advance without the whipped cream (which can be added following Step 12).