A Very English Dessert: Trifally Speaking

Hello Hello! Happy Mother’s Day weekend to all the moms out there. Welcome to week 15 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. This week finds us in England via the kitchen, making a dessert that dates all the way back to the 1750’s.

It was a time when women dressed like this…

An embroidered muslin dress dating from 1730-1769 from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection

and men dressed like this…

Men’s fashionable suit made in England circa 1765. Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert museum collection.

and housing looked like this…

An engraving of Marble Hill, circa 1749 courtesy of english-heritage.org

and dessert looked like this…

In the kitchens of castles and cottages and country houses across the rolling hills and bucolic landscapes of England, big bowls filled with fruit and cream and custard and cake decorated tables and delighted diners.

The fun of this week’s vintage recipe starts with the adjectives that most often describe it… tipsy, whimsical, drunken, inconsequential, foolish, scrapy, flurried. It was first made in the 1500’s, but really became part of the popular dessert vernacular in the 1700’s, and was one of the few sweet treats of its day that appealed to practically every type of eater, from the thrifty homemaker to the flamboyant palace chef. Legend states that its origin may have originally sprouted in Spain or Italy, but once the British embraced it, it became a wholly English dessert. And it came complete with cute nicknames – The Tipsy Parson, The Tipsy Hedgehog, The Tipsy Squire. All an homage to the alcohol cleverly disguised inside the cake and custard that held the whole assemblage together.

Today in the Kitchen, I’m pleased to announce that we are making English Trifle, a piled up assortment of boozy cake, jam, fruit, custard and cream. Like any 500 year old recipe, lots of variations have emerged since it was first created, but the fundamental hallmarks of the recipe (cream, cake, alcohol, fruit, custard, jelly) haven’t changed in five centuries. That makes it one of the most authentic desserts in the history of baking.

The first cookbook to print a recipe for trifle with jelly was Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which was published in 1751.

Eight years ago, my friend Diana gave me a trifle dish. I loved it immediately for its big shape, but up until now never actually made the food that it’s named for. Instead, over the past almost-decade, I’ve used my trifle dish for all sorts of non-related kitchen jobs – a flower vase, a holder for various miscellanies (wine corks, napkins, kitchen tools, flatware), a container to corral foodstuffs (bread, cookies, nuts), a fruit bowl, an ice bucket, a table centerpiece for candles and crafts, an organizer for pantry odds and ends, and most recently a punch bowl. It’s overall handiness is ironic considering that this dish was made for one very specific type of dessert.

The trifle dish turned punch bowl was featured in Week 4 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020 when we visited Barbados via the kitchen. Read more about that here.

Anyway, its exciting to think that this much loved glass container is not only making it’s trifle debut here on the Recipe Tour but also serving up the oldest historical food we have made on the blog yet. That means it is older than  Election Cake (1700’s) and older than Sally Lunn Cake (1600’s)

That’s Election Cake on the left and Sally Lunn Cake on the right!

The recipe we are following for this English Trifle is from the 1970’s New York Times International Cookbook, but it is pretty faithful to the 16th-18th century versions. The only adjustment I had to make with this specific recipe was exchanging the current jelly for raspberry preserves, since I couldn’t find current jelly at the grocery store.  Some vintage recipes for trifle feature other fruits like cherries, apricots, strawberries or peaches so really you could use any type of jam that you prefer best and still keep the historical integrity of true English Trifle completely intact.

A two part process, this was no quick whip up in the kitchen, but it’s not complicated to make.  Since it contains two recipes in one, I wound up breaking up the steps into two parts over two days – one day for the homemade sponge cake and the other day for the homemade custard and assembly. Over the years, especially in the mid-to late 20th century, many short-cut variations have been substituted for these two steps – including store bought pound cake, prepackaged ladyfingers, instant pudding mixes, prepackaged cake mixes and ready made whip cream. But I recommend making the whole dessert from scratch even though it takes a good chunk of time to prepare.

The process of making this over the course of two days worked well, because the longer the sponge cake rests in the fridge, the easier it is to slice for presentation in the trifle dish. It is also ideal to refrigerate the entire finished (and decorated) trifle overnight to allow the cake time to soak up the Madeira,  and to allow the rum to blend into the custard.

There’s a fun step in the sponge cake making process which involves a clean kitchen towel and the act of rolling the cake up inside it. If you are familiar with jelly roll cakes, this won’t be a new or unusual task for you, but if you’ve never rolled up a hot cake just out of the oven in a kitchen cloth before, it will feel a little strange and unnatural. Almost like something you’ve been trained not to do as a kid – like writing in a book or coloring on a wall. But persevere anyway. It all works out wonderfully in the end.

Sponge Jelly Roll

3 tablespoons butter, melted

4 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

3/4 cup tart current jelly ( I used 50% less sugar organic raspberry preserves)

2 tablespoons Madeira

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush an 8×12 jelly roll pan (or a standard cake pan) with half the melted butter. Line the pan with a large sheet of parchment paper, letting a little of the paper hang over the sides. Then brush the parchment paper with the remaining butter.

Break the eggs into a medium size bowl. Add the salt and three quarters cup sugar.

Beat with an electric mixer until stiff or until the batter forms a thick ribbon and fall back onto itself when the beaters are lifted from the bowl. Carefully fold in the flour and vanilla. Pour this mixture into the prepared pan. Spread smooth with a ribber spatula. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes.

While the cake is baking, lay your clean kitchen towel flat on the counter. In a small bowl, sift together the remaining two tablespoons sugar with the confectioners’ sugar. Sprinkle the sugar mixture on the clean towel. Watch this step over on Instagram in the Week 15 video here.

After you pull the cake from the oven, grab all four corners of the parchment paper and immediately remove the cake from the pan. Carefully flip the cake onto the sugared towel and peel away the parchment paper.  Adjust the cake so that it lines up with the edge of the towel and then quickly roll it up. Watch a video of this step here.

Let the cake rest for 15 minutes wrapped in the towel. Then unroll the towel and spread the cake with a thin, even layer of jelly.

Then roll the cake up once more, except this time don’t roll it up into the cloth.

Transfer the roll carefully to a sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper,  and wrap it and place it in the fridge to chill. (Note: You can leave it in the fridge up to 24 hours. The longer it sits in the fridge the easier it will be to cut and arrange in the dish).

After the cake has chilled, remove it from the fridge and place it on a cutting board. Cut the entire jelly roll into 1/2″ inch thick slices.

Next line the bottom of the trifle dish with as many slices as will fit to cover the bottom and then line the sides of the dish. You should have a few slices left over after you’ve lined the dish. Set those remaining slices aside for use after the custard is ready.

Sprinkle the cake slices with the two tablespoons of Madeira and then cover and refrigerate the dish while you make Part Two of the recipe.

English Trifle

Serves 10-12

Sponge Jelly Roll slices

4 eggs, seperated

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tablespoon unflavored gelatin

1 1/4 cups light cream

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons light rum

1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl and add the sugar.

Beat thoroughly with an electric mixer and add the gelatin. Set aside.

Bring the light cream to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring constantly so that the cream does not scorch. Slowly add it to the egg mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk as you incorporate the milk.

Transfer the egg/milk mixture to a large saucepan. Cook and stir the mixture over low heat until it coats the back of a wooden spoon (about 10 minutes).

Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and set the pan in a bowl filled with ice cubes to cool. Stir until cooled. {Note: I cooked my custard for about 15 minutes on the stove, which I think turned out to be about 5 minutes too long! Once the custard sits in the ice cubes it thickens even more, so ultimately when you remove the custard from the heat it should be about the consistency of somewhat runny cheese sauce and not quite as thick as loose pudding, which was more like my consistency.}

In a separate mixing bowl add the egg whites and beat until they form soft peaks.

Fold the whites into the cooled custard. {Note as you can see from the photo below my custard became pretty thick once it cooled. If this happens to you, don’t worry, once you fold in the egg whites and the cream you can use a rubber spatula to smooth the custard out. The rum also helps the custard break down a little bit.}

Beat half the heavy cream until stiff…

And then fold the heavy cream into the custard/egg white mixture…

Then fold in the rum…

Spoon all the custard into the trifle dish, covering the bottom slices and spreading the custard evenly with a spatula.

Cover the top of the custard with the reserved slices of jelly roll.

Beat the remaining cream and sweeten it with confectioners’ sugar and vanilla extract. Using a pastry tube or spoon, garnish the top of the trifle with cream. Now comes the fun part… decorating the top! The recipe’s directions stopped after the whipped cream, so we are now, at this stage,  left up to our own interpretations and creativity from this point forward. Some bakers like to decorate the tops of their trifles with crushed nuts, slivered almonds, shaved chocolate or fruit. I decided to top mine with strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and mint.

And because this recipe hails from England, the land of beautiful gardens, I put a few fresh flowers on top too.

We are enjoying strawberry season this month in the South, so the berries seemed like an ideal companion, and my sweet mint in the garden is growing by leaps and bounds, making me want to add mint to everything in order to keep it under control. But you might have your own fun spin on a trifle topper so I encourage you to get creative.

To serve the trifle, you just need to dive right into it with a big spoon and scoop out a slice of cake from the side and place it on a dessert plate. Then add an extra dollop of custard and whip cream from the interior and add some additional bits of topping for an extra bit of flair.

A truly delicious baking endeavor that tastes of summer and satisfaction, this whole dessert is substantial but not heavy. The custard is pillowy, the whip cream delicate, the berries tangy.  It is no wonder that this recipe has been floating around the dessert world for five hundred years. It’s a timeless classic for sure. No matter how we have evolved as humans from century to century, I don’t think we’ll ever tire of any combination involving fruit and cream, flour and custard, butter and jam. It’s in our history, after all.

P.S. The trifle will keep in the fridge for a few days but not the freezer, as this recipe is meant for sharing not storing. If you are still quarantining like we are in my neck of the woods, and your amount of eaters is small, don’t let the size and scale of this recipe sway you. Perhaps you could surprise your friends or neighbors with a little gift of British baking.

Cheers to England for propelling this dessert through centuries. And cheers to all the moms out there who have made this recipe in the past and will continue to make this recipe in the future!

Join us next week as we island hop over to Fiji for a tropical dinner and a special weather episode that adds audible ambiance to our cooking adventure. See you next time for Week 16 of the Recipe Tour!