I grew up with a very British grandmother who felt no meal was ever complete without something sweet at the end (I assume this view was likely from both generational and regional influences). To her, dessert could be as simple as sliced fruit or as decadent as a dense chocolate mousse. But I always remember her favorites as traditional, and likely nostalgic for her, British concoctions: fruit cakes, sticky toffee puddings, shortbreads, and the like. And of course, trifle; undoubtedly one of the U.K.’s most well-known sweet treats.
As a child, I experimented freely and frequently in the kitchen—I usually made a dessert (I was a kid after all)—with relative success, as I sometimes (often) wouldn’t use a recipe. Little did I know, at that time, that baking is somewhat of a precise art, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, chances are you’ll end up with a pasty, overly sweet hockey puck. But when I did actually follow instructions, I taught myself to prepare quite a few very presentable dishes. One of my first successful attempts was a trifle, which I knew well from previous Christmases and had always been enamored with. They were so beautiful to me, and looked so intricate and deceptively challenging to prepare. And then I made one; and I understood that they’re a heck of a lot less work than they seem.
We routinely had a can of Bird’s custard powder (another uber-British staple) in our pantry at all times, but I can’t actually recall my mother ever using it. Looking back, I wonder why we ever had it at all—besides the fact that maybe her mother always had it stocked, as did her mother, and so on. Regardless, once I discovered the wonders of this weird “magical” powder, and realized it could make something that seemed so elaborate (like my first trifle) with a fair amount of ease, I was hooked. I was still too young to understand, or appreciate, that this custard powder was really not much more convenient or timesaving than using made-from-scratch custard creams. Not to mention it was a heck of a lot less healthy than its made-from-scratch counterpart. It wasn’t until a couple years later, when I began working with a French pastry chef, that I first learned how simple it was to prepare pastry cream. That was the last time I used Bird’s, and I’m pretty sure my mother stopped buying it after that.
Although at first glance trifle may seem like a lot of work, all the components are actually easy. And once each component is prepared, assembly is done in a flash. This recipe is my present-day take on the old trifles I prepared as a child, with a few adjustments to suit a more wholesome approach. Gone is the Bird’s custard powder, exchanged for silken homemade pastry cream. Traditionally thickened with flour or cornstarch, my current trifle uses arrowroot and gelatin, which provide a similar texture, without highly refined starches, as well as the nutritive benefits from high-quality, grass-fed gelatin. Traditionally, trifle is made with cake soaked in sherry, but I’ve never been a big fan of the taste of alcohol (or the added sugar), so I’ve opted to eliminate it. If you like the flavor of alcohol, feel free to add a little sherry or other sweet wine to your soaking liquid. For the cake, we’ve swapped out all-purpose flour for whole-grain einkorn, and cut the sweetener back as much as possible without affecting the chemistry of the recipe too much.
Trifle is truly a blank canvas, limited only to the extent of one’s imagination, and it makes a beautiful centerpiece for any special (or even everyday) occasion. It can be prepared with a multitude of flavor combinations you enjoy, and makes great use of whatever is the tastiest seasonal fruit available. It can even be made with frozen (defrosted) or canned fruit, as great alternatives in the winter. For the most traditional presentation, I’d recommend using a trifle bowl, but any clear vessel will work equally well. You can also make single servings in glasses or mason jars.
Prep time: Approximately 1 hour
Cook time: approximately 1 hour
6 egg whites
4 egg yolks
½ cup neutral-flavored oil or melted butter
½ cup water
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1¾ cups whole-grain einkorn flour
1 cup coconut sugar, ground to a fine powder
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 large pinch salt
6 cups whole milk
12 whole eggs
2 egg yolks (saved from the eggs used to prepare the cake)
½ cup maple syrup or honey, or more to taste
¼ cup arrowroot
1 pinch salt
2 tablespoons grass-fed gelatin (I use Great Lakes)
¼ cup water
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons butter
1 quart heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Maple syrup, to taste
1 cup water, sweetened lightly with maple syrup, stevia, or honey (if you like the taste of liquor, cut back on water by about ¼ cup and add sherry or other sweet liquor)
1 teaspoon vanilla
6-8 cups (approximately) assorted berries or other fruit, diced or sliced if necessary
One day in advance, prepare cake and pastry cream. Let both chill completely before assembling trifle.
To make the cake:
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 10-inch cake pan with butter and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper.
- Separate eggs in to two large bowls. If using a stand mixer, place egg whites in mixer bowl. Add oil, water, and vanilla to yolks; whisk to combine. In a separate, third bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Add yolk mixture to flour mixture and stir until fully combined.
- Meanwhile, whip egg whites to stiff peaks in a stand mixer or using a handheld mixer. Gently fold egg whites into cake batter. Pour into prepared pan.
- Bake until cooked through and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool in pan for about 20 minutes, then flip out of pan and cool completely on a rack, before wrapping in plastic and refrigerating.
To make the pastry cream:
- Place water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over. Set aside and let sit for 5–10 minutes. Whisk eggs and yolks in a large bowl. Set aside approximately two-thirds of a cup of milk, and pour the rest into a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add maple syrup to milk in pot, and add arrowroot to the small amount you set aside.
- Bring milk in pot to a bare simmer. Whisk about a quarter of the hot milk into the eggs, then return mixture to milk on stove. Cook gently, being careful not to boil, and whisking frequently, until slightly thickened, about 7–10 minutes.
- Add arrowroot mixture and gelatin; heat for 1–2 minutes, but be extremely careful not to bring to a boil, or the thickening power of both will quickly deteriorate with too much heat. Add vanilla to mixture, and then stir through the butter until melted.
Pour into a large bowl and place a round of parchment paper directly on top of custard. Let chill overnight in refrigerator before assembling trifle.
To prepare the remaining components:
- For the soaking liquid, combine the water with vanilla and enough sweetener to lightly flavor. Add liquor, if using. Set aside.
- Cut any large fruit into bite-size pieces. Wash and inspect berries. Set aside.
- Cut cake into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.
- Whip cream with a stand mixer or electric handheld mixer. Add vanilla and sweetener to taste. Set aside in fridge to keep cold.
To assemble the trifle:
- Scatter about one-third of the cake cubes into the base of your serving dish, or divide among individual dishes, if using. Drizzle cake with some of the vanilla soaking liquid.
- Spoon approximately one-third of the pastry cream on top of the cake and smooth to the edges with a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon.
- Scatter about one-third of the berries over pastry cream layer. Then spread one-third of the whipped cream atop the berries.
- Repeat with remaining cake, pastry cream, berries, and whipped cream, for one more layer. Then assemble a third layer starting with cake, then pastry cream, then whipped cream, and finishing with berries.
- Serve immediately, or cover and chill until ready to serve. May be assembled up to 24 hours in advance.
Image by Briana Goodall.