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Recipe and photograph courtesy of
Bon Appétit Desserts click for book review

How-to Make a Trifle, Trifle Recipe


How to Make a Trifle

Before we can learn how to make a trifle, we must ask - what is a trifle?  The trifle is a lush dessert composed of layers of a custard (of many thicknesses) and fruit, built on a foundation of lady fingers or sponge cake moistened by alcohol, and topped with whipped cream. The trifle is generally served in a glass bowl so the layers can be seen in all their glory.  Once you know how to make a trifle it is not that difficult and can be the dessert that brings the most oohs and ahhs.

One of the earliest trifle recipes we can find dates back to 1654.  There is no advice on how to make the trifle, just the instructions to take a very fine slice of a "manchet," plop it in a dish, and pour a little sack over it.  This is a trifle? It more resembles the fool (foole to the early English) from which it evolved.

Definitions are needed: a manchet was a palm-sized piece of bread, not as delicate as the lady-fingers used in a trifle today, but one that would be found only in the homes of the wealthy.  Sack was a form of sherry wine and we see that the association of the trifle with alcohol had begun.

The early trifle recipe does not mention fruit, but in its history, the trifle evolved from the fruit and cream dessert called the "fool."  Perhaps the general populace knew how to make this trifle incorporating fruit, perhaps not.  When and how the trifle adopted fruit is still unknown, and overlapping recipes only add to the confusion. 

Nor do we know why the trifle is called a trifle, but this dessert was no trifle and had the ability to cross borders as it evolved. In Scotland, the trifle is called a 'whim-wham.'   The Irish kept the name trifle, but in both countries the alcohol level was increased. Traveling down the European continent, the French invented a trifle aptly named Mousse a l'anglaise.  Still traveling, the trifle reached Italy where it became Zuppa Inglese (English soup) and the later Tiramisu.  Not bad work for something relegated to being a mere trifle, though we see in the history of the trifle that it was not given the esteem it deserved.

The history of the trifle evolves. In the 1890's a gentleman named Theodore Francis Garrett produced eight massive volumes of recipes.  There were sixteen trifle recipes in his work and the his advice on how to make a trifle may also illustrate the attitude held to the trifle:

"Trifles.  These are exceptionally English dishes, and are held in very poor esteem by the foreign pastry-cook, who probably attaches some greater importance to the name than is necessary.  Webster connects the work with the French truffe or truffle, signifying anything of little note or importance.  From the following receipts it will be seen that these Trifles are not by any means unimportant as disshes."

Among those sixteen trifle recipes was one entitled "Queen of Trifles."  Garrett's instructions on how to make this staggering dessert begin, "Lay 1/2 pound of lady fingers or square sponge cakes at the bottom of a trifle-dish...."  Though the 'manchet' was an expectional bread, we see the refinement that make today's trifle so elegant.  As we see from the picture on the right, the trifle of today is an elegant affair, one with versatility, and always one that stands proudly on the table.  But how to make a trifle? 



Recipe and photoograph courtesy of Bon Appétit Desserts, Edited by Barbara Fairchild, published by Andrews McMeel, photograph by Con Poulos  click for book review

How To Make a Trifle:

Trifle Recipe: White Chocolate Trifle with Spiced Pears

click for printable recipe only

1 - Spiced Pears
  • 1 750ml bottle dry white wine
  • 2 cups pear juice or pear nectar
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 12 whole green cardamom pods, crushed in resealable plastic bag with mallet
  • 4 1-inch diameter rounds peeled fresh ginger (each about 1/8 inch thick
  • 8 large firm but ripe Anjou pears (3 to 3 1/4 pounds), peeled
2 - Mousse
  • 7 ounces high-quality white chocolate (such as Lindt or Perugina), chopped
  • 1/3 cup poire Williams (clear pear brandy)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 1 8- to 9-ounce container mascarpone cheese
  • 1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream


3 - Trifle Assembly
  • 3 3-ounce packages soft ladyfiners, separated
  • 2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup minced crystallized ginger
  • White chocolate curls
  • Powdered sugar



SPICED PEARS FOR TRIFLE:  Combine white wine, pear juice, sugar, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon in heavy large saucepan.  Stir over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves.  Add pears and bring to boil.  Reduce heat to medium, cover, and simmer until pears are just tender when pierced with knife, about 35 minutes.  Transfer liquid with pears to large bowl and chill until cold, aoubt 3 hours.

Using slotted spoon, transfer pears to plate.  Transfer poachind liquid to heavy large saucepan; boil over medium-high heat until slightly thickened and reduced to generous 1 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes.  Strain into 2-cup measuring cup; discard spices in strainer.  Cool.  Cover and chill pears and pear syrup until cold.

MOUSSE FOR TRIFLE :  Combine white chocolate, pear brandy, and 1//4 cup water in top of double boiler set over simmering water.  Stir until smooth (mixture will be very liquidy).  Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean (reserve bean for antoher use).  Transfer white chocolate mixture to large bowl; gradually add mascarpone, whisking until mixture is smooth.  Cool mascarpone mixture until barely lukewarm.

Using electric mixer, beat cream in medium bowl until peaks form.  Fold whipped cream into mascapone mixutre in 4 additions.  Cover and chill white chocolate mousse until set, about 3 hours.

DO AHEAD: Pears and mousse can be made 1 day ahead.  Keep chilled.


How to Make a Trifle - Trifle Assembly


trifle assembly b
Trifle Assembly 1
Trifle Assembly 2
Trifle Assembly 3


TRIFLE ASSEMBLY:  Cut pears lengthwise in half and remove cores and stems. Cut halves lengthwise into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices.

Arrange ladyfingers, rounded sides down, in single layer in bottom of 12-cup trifle dish (about 8 inches in diameter and 5 inches deep), covering bottom completely (using about 15 ladyfingers) [1].

Drizzle 5 tablespoons pear syrup evenly over ladyfingers. Using small offset spatula or spoon, spread 1⁄3 of white chocolate mousse over ladyfingers [2 and 3], making layer slightly thicker around outer edges of dish to allow mousse to be more visible (center of mousse layer will be thin).

Starting at outer edges of dish, place pear slices in single layer with curved edges against sides of dish atop mousse, covering completely. Repeat layering of ladyfingers, syrup, mousse, and pears 2 more times. Cover with fourth layer of ladyfingers (some ladyfingers and pear slices may be left over). Drizzle ladyfingers evenly with 5 tablespoons syrup. Chill at least 6 hours.

Do Ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill trifle and remaining pear syrup separately.

Using electric mixer, beat cream in large bowl until soft peaks form. Add 1⁄4 cup pear syrup and beat until stiff peaks form. Working in batches, transfer cream to large pastry bag fitted with large star tip. Pipe rosettes all over top of trifle, mounding slightly in center. Sprinkle with crystallized ginger. Garnish with white chocolate curls.

Do Ahead: Can be made 6 hours ahead. Keep chilled. Sift powdered sugar over trifle just before serving.


Now that you know how to make a trifle, you can dazzle your guests.  And enjoy a glance backward in the history of the trifle....

A Nostalgic Glance Backward - How to Make a Trifle if it's 1733
"Take a Pint of Cream, and boil it, and when it is almost cold, sweeten it, and put it in the Bason you use it in; and put to it a Spoonful of Runnet; let it stand 'till it comes like Cheese: You may perfume it, or put in Orange-Flower-Water."  from Mrs. Mary Eales's receipt for trifle.
How to Make a Trifle if it's 1751

"Cover the Bottom of your Dish or Bowl with Nap.es Biscuits, broke in Pieces, Mackeroons broke in Halves, and Ratafia Cakes (a variation on the Macaroon).     Just wet them all through with Sack, then make a good boiled Custard, not too thick, and when cold pour over it, then put a Syllabub over that.  You may garnish it with Ratifia Cakes, Currant Jelly and Flowers."  from Hannah Glasse, one of England's earliest instructors on how to make a trifle.


also read: I'm a Fool to Want You - Three British Desserts: Syllabub, Fool and Trifle

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