A Trifle for the Holidays

A Trifling Little Dessert

An Italian tiramisu standing in as a trifle. Festive!

To quote Mrs. Bennet, people don’t die of trifling little colds. Serve this to your holiday guests and they may well expire from delight. We’re going to get serious and have a little fun with the English trifle, an antique dessert of fruit, custard, cake, and booze. Lots of booze. People have been enjoying trifles since the 18thCentury. Several sources tell us that the dessert was invented to use up cake or cookies (biscuits) that were going stale. Our favorite characters would certainly have enjoyed it. If you have some time and a pretty glass bowl, you can please and impress guests who may be just a little bit tired of pumpkin spice. 

Overview and Ingredients

Your trifle will be constructed in layers, kind of like a lasagna. We’ll start with a layer of ladyfingers or slices of pound cake or sponge cake. These will be spread with good jam and a healthy pouring of alcohol—cream sherry, marsala, or Madeira. If you’re daring, you can use rum. Next comes the fruit, and you can use whatever you like. Citrus trifles are delicious, especially if you can get some exotic oranges such as cara-cara or blood oranges. Kiwis sliced thin make a surprisingly good addition to the oranges. Mixed berries are traditional as are poached and spiced apples or pears. If you have objections to wine, you can use a good quality orange juice as your liquid with any of these, and if you’re poaching pears or apples, you can enhance your custard with a sprinkling of cinnamon or nutmeg. Yes, the custard comes next, and it’s the piece of the trifle needing the most care. I’ll try to walk you through it with hints.  Finally, decorate the top to your heart’s content with whipped cream, candied cherries, slivered and sliced almonds—I have even seen a trifle decorated with edible flowers. 

So, On to the Construction Project:

For the custard, sometimes called “crème anglaise”: 

 2 cups whole milk—don’t use cream
1 vanilla bean, split, or ½ tsp. good vanilla extract
4 egg yolks—separate the eggs and use the whites for something else
¼ cup sugar
 Pinch of salt
A square of cling wrap such as Glad Wrap
A wire whisk 
A stainless steel serving spoon from your tableware
A strainer

You can prepare this up to three days ahead. Store it in the refrigerator. The trick with custard sauce is never, ever allow it to boil. Keep the heat on low, and if it gives so much as one blurp or burble after you’ve incorporated the eggs, get it off the heat and continue stirring. It will be thin, and that’s natural. Ready?

Place your whole milk and vanilla bean in a saucepan that has a lid. Bring it to a very gentle boil. You’re allowed a couple of blurps or burbles here. The way to keep track of it is to watch the edges as the milk heats. Little bubbles will gather at the edges and get bigger when it is about to boil. As soon as it boils, get it off the heat and cover the saucepan with the lid. Let it rest for ten minutes. 

Prepare the eggs. Separate them one at a time, saving the whites for another purpose. Whisk the yolks, sugar, and salt together until thick and lemon-colored in a medium bowl. Here comes the tricky part: When your timer goes off (after ten minutes), discard the vanilla bean and stir the milk mixture into the yolks very, very slowly about a spoonful at a time. Tedious? Yes, but if you dribble it in slowly and keep stirring, you’ll have a smooth custard. The serving spoon from your dinner set comes in handy for this. It’s just the right size. The purpose is to temper the egg yolks by very gradually warming them up with the warm milk. Introduce the milk too fast and you will have scrambled and curdled eggs—they’ll cook themselves in the heat from the milk. So, this is a place where slow and steady really does pay off. Believe me, if I can do it, you can. 

Return the custard mixture to the saucepan. With the heat set to medium-low, cook the mixture stirring constantly. Without letting up for a moment. Watch for the custard mixture to begin to coat the back of your metal spoon. Don’t allow it to boil or even burble. 

When it coats the back of the spoon and tiny bubbles are gathering around the edges, immediately remove it from the heat and strain it into the bowl through your strainer. That rids it of any bits and strings that we see in egg yolks. You’ll have a bowlful of beautiful, silky custard. Let it cool on the counter for a half-hour and then cover with cling wrap—lay it right down on the surface of the custard. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to three days. This custard won’t look like Jello pudding; it’s thin and soupy, and that is what you want. 

Wow! You’re to be congratulated. 

For the Fruit: 

1 ½ cups berries of your choice. Mixed berries are very appealing.  
OR Three oranges, “exotic” if possible or at least good navel oranges
OR Three apples or pears, peeled, seeded, and poached to your liking (in wine, perhaps)
2-3 teaspoons granulated sugar, or use honey if you like      
Other flavorings if desired. Cinnamon sugar and nutmeg for the poached fruit.

Thaw the berries if you are using frozen. Drain most of the juice out, leaving only a little. Add  sugar to taste. Allow to sit for about a half-hour, stirring occasionally.

If you’re doing citrus fruit, peel and section the oranges, being certain to get rid of all the white strings and debris. Cut each orange section in half. If you’re adding kiwi fruits, peel three kiwis and cut into thin slices. Mix with oranges. HINT: These look very pretty and festive if you stand them upright so that they are leaning on the sides of the bowl, sort of peeking out through it. Allow the citrus and kiwi to sit for about a half hour, stirring occasionally. If you’re using poached fruit, take off the skins if you haven’t already and cut into slices, discarding cores and seeds. Sprinkle with cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. Again, allow to stand for about a half hour.

For the cake:

1 dozen small ladyfingers
Or the equivalent in pound cake
Or the equivalent in sponge cake
A berry jam or orange marmalade – quality counts here, so leave the Welch’s in favor of the Bonne Maman or a good English marmalade. Up to ¾ cup of sweet (cream) sherry, Madeira, or Marsala, or any sweet dessert wine. Bourbon whiskey actually goes beautifully with the apples or pears. Some people use rum, some people brandy. Watch out if you have kids partaking, or make them up a little in a separate bowl with orange juice.
Spread the cake/cookies on one side with the jam or marmalade. Arrange in the bowl jelly-side down. Now, soak them through and through with the wine. You don’t want them falling apart, but you want them really wet.


First, be sure your cake/cookie layer covers the whole bottom of your bowl and comes up the side. Add more if desired.

Next, stir your fruit well and add on top of the cake. Arrange your kiwis or your apple slices in some pleasing arrangement. 

Top the fruit with that beautiful custard sauce you labored over. Doesn’t that look and smell lovely? 


½ pint heavy whipping cream or more if you like

1 tablespoon sugar

Combine these two ingredients and whip, using your stand mixer, whisk, or egg beater, until soft peaks form. Careful not to over-beat. 

Now you are free to go nuts. If you know how to do piping, pipe the cream over the top of your trifle in swirls and stars. If you don’t, just mound it on so that those soft peaks invite the guest to dive in. Decorate with: Bits of crystallized ginger, sliced or slivered almonds, the prettiest of your selection of berries, more kiwi thin sliced and arranged in a round, bits of macaroons, or whatever strikes your fancy. 

Cover your trifle carefully with cling wrap and chill at least three hours or overnight. Bring to the table with pride—and a very happy holiday season whatever you are celebrating. 

I really want you to enjoy your trifle. If you have questions or perplexities, you may drop me a comment and I will try my best to get back to you before you plan to serve the trifle. 

A Trifle for the Holidays
Trifle or Tiramisu

4 responses to “A Trifling Little Dessert”

  1. Linda A. Avatar
    Linda A.

    I love tiramisu! Now I know why it is expensive — a lot of work goes into making it.

    1. Anne Madison Avatar

      Gee, I replied and made the reply disappear. All that cream, alcohol, and out of season fruit can really boost up the price tag. It’s why I only make it once a year.

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    The Trifle looks great! I am not an alcohol drinker but it does look good!

    1. Anne Madison Avatar

      You can fearlessly use a good orange juice to soak your cake. It will complement the citrus especially, but the berry and apple or pear versions will be delicious as well. Fresh squeezed would be best. I buy Simply Orange, and it tastes pretty fresh to me. Your guests won’t miss the wine or spirits.

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