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Old English Dessert Recipe: My Favorite Trifle

Updated on May 11, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

An English trifle dessert made with sherry, sponge, fruit, custard and cream layers.
An English trifle dessert made with sherry, sponge, fruit, custard and cream layers. | Source

Make a Traditional English Trifle for Dessert

I love a good old fashioned trifle. It tastes great and doesn’t need any special skill to make. A trifle is an old English dessert. The earliest published recipe for this kind of pudding is thought to be by Thomas Dawson in his book “The Good Housewife’s Jewell (1596). His receipt used thick sugared cream flavored with ginger and rosewater.

A recipe containing layers of fruit, cream and bread with sugar and spices was published by Hannah Woolley in her book “The Gentlewoman’s Companion” (1673). She used cinnamon and mace as flavorings and layered her trifle with an egg custard.

Gelatin was added to the ingredients of this dish from the late 17th century. Fruit jelly was listed in a trifle recipe published by Hannah Glasse in 1747 and other cooks followed suit. Modern trifles use sponge cake or biscuits in place of the bread slices used in earlier versions of this dessert.

My favorite way of making a trifle is as follows.

Ingredients for Making My Favorite Trifle

The quantities listed are a little vague as you can make a trifle with varying proportions of th ingredients depending on your personal taste.

1. An elegant serving bowl; made of cut-glass if you have one as it sparkles in the sunlight

2. Some ginger-nut biscuits or sponge fingers for the base layer

3. A generous glassful of sherry or brandy (or fruit syrup for a non-alcoholic version)

4. A packet of fruit flavored Jell-O (jelly)

5. Chopped fresh fruit or a can of fruit; pineapple, mandarin oranges or peaches

6. A pint of thick custard

7. Plenty of freshly whipped cream

8. Some chopped almonds, hazelnut or walnuts for decoration

What's your secret ingredient for making a trifle amazing?

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How to Make the Best Trifle Ever

  1. For a party or to impress that special guest, you should make the trifle in the fanciest bowl you have. This makes the trifle look more expensive than it really is.
  2. Line the base of the bowl with “ginger nut” biscuits. These are a hard, very gingery, plain biscuit. Generously pour sherry over the biscuits. If you want a non-alcoholic version pour the syrup or juice from the tinned fruit (see below) over the biscuits instead.
  3. Make a fruit jelly (Jell-O). You can make it from scratch using gelatin sheets or use a branded fruit jelly. Add some canned fruit (but not the juice or syrup that is in the can) to the jelly and pour the fruit jelly mixture over the biscuit base. I like to use pineapple chunks rather than mandarin oranges as it gives more texture to the finished trifle, but any small pieces of fruit are good.
  4. Put the bowl in the fridge and let the jelly set.
  5. Make the custard. You can either make real custard with eggs and milk or you can cheat and use ready-made or custard powder. I prefer to use custard powder (rather than a carton) as I can then add as much or as little sugar as I want. Make custard that is thick, but not solid. (It should coat the back of a spoon but still sluggishly run off it.) Spoon the custard over the set jelly to a depth of about one inch.
  6. Top the dish with whipped cream. Make it a good thick layer; at least an inch should do it. Sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts or flaked almonds.
  7. Serve! Even after a huge meal, everyone always manages to find a little bit of room to eat some trifle. Oh yes, and why is it called a trifle? It has a trifle of this in it and a trifle of that!

A Note About the Words “Jelly” and "Jell-O"

Britain and America are often said to be two nations divided by a common language. The word “jelly” is an example of the way that US English and UK English can confuse non-native English speakers.

In British English, jelly is a wobbly dessert made from gelatin (and this is what trifle is made with). The same quivering pudding in American English is called Jell-O.

American English uses jelly as the word for the preserved fruit and sugar concoction that is spread on bread and toast (as in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). In UK, this same spread is called jam.

How to Make Sherry Trifle

Guide to Calories in Trifle (Depends on the Ingredients)

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 170g
Calories 375
Calories from Fat207
% Daily Value *
Fat 23 g35%
Saturated fat 15 g75%
Carbohydrates 35 g12%
Fiber 2 g8%
Protein 5 g10%
* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.

Old English Desserts - My Favorite Trifle

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Origin and Meaning of the Word “Trifle”

The etymology (or origin) of the word “trifle” is from an Anglo-French word meaning fraud or trick. The verb “to trifle” (as in “don’t trifle with my affection”) still has a similar meaning. However, the noun “a trifle” has evolved into meaning something small or insignificant. Thus a trifle is a dessert made from small amounts of many ingredients.

I am of the opinion that the taste of a homemade trifle is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a great choice to make for any family get-together; birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, whenever. It’s easy to make and you can use seasonal ingredients to make it extra special.

The ingredients of an English Trifle can be many and varied, but I’ve never tasted one quite like Rachel made in the TV comedy show “Friends”. The video below should carry a warning – Don’t try this at home. I hope you enjoy viewing it.

Rachel From "Friends" Makes English Trifle Pie


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