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Typical British Deserts - Trifle

Updated on July 13, 2014

What is Trifle?

Trifle can be described as a dessert made of custard, fruit, sponge cake soaked in sherry, jelly, fruit and whipped cream.

Many families have their own spin on which ingredients to use, for example the type of fruit they use, flavor of jelly (jello) and the decorations they add to the top.

Blancmange is also an ingredient used in some regions. Many times pink, this is also a dessert by itself. Made in a mould, it is often made into shapes like jelly/jello.

Often trifle will be made from leftovers so the ingredients may change with each trifle made.

The most important aspect being the bowl, a clear glass bowl is needed to display the several layers of ingredients used.

I was recently asked what sort of desserts do British people eat and I immediately thought of Trifle. It brings back memories of birthday parties and Christmas, of eating the sponge sticks when looking for a snack and of the hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top.

I wondered how best to describe the desert and started to think about what exactly were the ingredients?

Origins of the Trifle

The earliest use of the word trifle to describe a pudding can be found in a publication by Thomas Dawson in England in 1596 called 'The Good Huswifes Jewell.'

The original recipe from the Dawson's book is noted on the website -

To make a Trifle.

Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and season it with Suger and Ginger, and Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then haue it, and make it luke warme in a dish on a Chafingdishe and coales, and after put it into a siluer peece or a bowle, and so serue it to the boorde.

Trifle in a Glass Bowl


The Layers of Trifle.

  1. Sponge cake softened by soaking in wine/sherry etc
  2. Fruit
  3. Jelly
  4. Custard
  5. Whipped cream
  6. Decorations

Sponge biscuits covered in jelly and fruit


Sponge Cake

A variety of cake can be used to make the first layer, often whatever cake is to hand. There are also commercially sold sponge biscuits made for trifle, which have a hard texture and soak up the liquid jelly or alcohol added to them.

Alcohol in Trifle

Traditionally the cake or biscuit that is placed at the bottom of a trifle is soaked in alcohol. Many British people would think of sherry when asked but there are many variations used. Port or Maderia wine are also commonly used to moisten the cake. The Scotish version of trifle is called Tipsy Laird or Whim Wham, made with Drambuie or Whisky. In the South of the US there is version known as tipsy cake.

Fruit in Jelly


Fruit and Jelly

Almost any fruit can be added to trifle, typically raspberries, tinned mandarin oranges or tinned fruit cocktail are used. A layer of jelly is added to the fruit so as it sets it is one layer.

Trifle Decorated with Nut Slivers


Blancmange that has been made in a mould and tipped out



This ingredient, often used instead of or on top of the jelly layer, is commonly made with milk or cream and sugar and thickened with gelatin and cornstarch.It is white but often colored pink or yellow.


British custard can be bought commercially in powder form or ready made in a carton or tin. It is however easily made on the stove top.

Recipe Ingredients:

  • 500ml of whole milk
  • 300ml of double cream
  • 6 fresh egg yolks (the yolks only are needed)
  • 80g of caster sugar

Method for Making Custard

Put a heavy based saucepan (with a pouring spout) on a low heat and add the milk, cream, and vanilla pod. After 10 minutes on a low heat increase the temperature and stir to slowly bring this mixture up to the boil. When near the boil, take off the heat. It is essential to use a heavy based saucepan to distribute the heat evenly and stop the cream from catching and burning.
Meanwhile beat and whip the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl, with a whisk, until the yolks and sugar are almost white (it takes a few minutes).
Then add the hot milk and cream little by little to the bowl with the beaten egg yolks and sugar, making sure you whisk continuously as you do so
Once fully mixed transfer all the ingredients back to the saucepan. Split the vanilla pod with a sharp knife lengthways, and scrape the seeds out into the custard. Put the custard back on to a medium heat for a few minutes
Recipe from

Trifle decorated with Fruit Slices


Whipped Cream and Decorations

The trifle is topped with lots of whipped cream and decorated - Hundreds and Thousands (sprinkles/jimmies), fruit slices, cherries, anything that is available.

Chocolate Trifle Recipe

So, trifle is an desert that can have endless variations on its ingredients. Having something for everyone, it is a great way to use leftovers and a hit at any party or gathering.


Submit a Comment

  • S T Alvyn profile image

    S T Alvyn 

    4 years ago from New England

    This a flashback to the 70's as a child, helping to make trifle and eating the sponge fingers while waiting!

    Today it's all cupcakes...

  • travmaj profile image


    4 years ago from australia

    Mmmm - my mouth is watering looking at this. Trifle was always on the menu when growing up. And yes, christmas and special occasions was trifle time too. I confess it's been years since I even thought about it, might have to make one now. Thanks for the recipe and the information.

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    Here in the uk we sometimes have trifle after christmas dinner as not everyone likes christmas pud


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