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Trifle - no little thing

“A trifle consoles us because a trifle upsets us.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées

This is for you Jenny after your disappointment that morsels and dainties did not include any gorgeous little sweet mouthfuls. It is also inspired by a tiny thing in the Woolworth's Fresh Ideas Magazine that has gone retro in their latest issue. Above are their Espresso martini trifles - a somewhat untraditional version of trifle but none the worse for that.

As to my leading quote, Pascal, was not of course talking about trifles in the foodie sense. Apart from anything else he was French and the French don't do trifle. The Italians sort of do though - Zuppa Inglese - which to all intents is trifle, as is Tiramisu if you think about it. No Pascal was referring to trifle in the sense of trivialities. And it's so true - well I think it probably deserves more deep thought to fully understand what he is saying - my problem being the 'because' that links the two parts of the thought. Yes a trifle consoles us and yes, a trifle can upset us, but is one the result of the other? Anyway to the triviality of trifle as a food - yes it can console - well it's sweet and a bit over the top, a bit decadent, and a bit sort of sinful in terms of food. Cake, alcohol, cream? Not what the doctor ordered, though the psychologist might. And although superficially simple it isn't really.

"Alan, [Davidson] meanwhile, observes the sweet irony of the fact that one of Britain's greatest contributions to the global dessert table "should bear a name which suggests that it is of no consequence. This, surely, is carrying much too far the British tradition of playing down the merits of all things British." Felicity Cloake

Actually when young, trifle was never one of my favourite desserts. Maybe it was one thing that my mother wasn't good at. I didn't like the soggy cake. It was just too mushy. A bit like the 'wet cake and custard' that an ex of Felicity Cloake described it as. Maybe it was like the versions that Nigel Slater describes so eloquently in his memoir Toast, constructed from bought sponge cakes, jam - I didn't like the jam in it either, which is odd, because I do like jam - Bird's Eye custard and hard silver balls on top for decorations. And the jelly too. I was never much of a fan of jelly either.

These days, it seems to me, having now perused dozens of trifle recipes, that jelly is increasingly being left out, although those Woolworths trifles have a base of a coffee jelly, which might be interesting. Ditto for the panettone doused in coffee liqueur. Something you can do with the dreaded panettone.

I think the traditional architecture, if you can call it that, is alcohol soaked cake - or other related things - jelly - or not; jam and/or fruit; cream; toppings.

"As long as you conform to the heaven-sent prescription of layers of cake, fruit, booze, custard and cream, you'll be in for a Christmas treat." Felicity Cloake

Not just Christmas surely?

In olden times - the eighteenth century was when the first recipe appeared in Hannah Glass's recipe book - the main difference was that there was syllabub. Long gone. A dish in need of a blog and a revival - syllabub that is. Another time. But here is Hannah Glasse's original recipe.

"Cover the bottom of your dish or bowl with Naples biscuits broke in pieces, mackeroons broke in halves, and ratafia cakes. Just wet them all through with sack, then make a good boiled cusard not too thick, and when cold pour it over it, then put a syllabub over that. You may garnish it with ratafia cakes, currant jelly, and flowers."

No fruit - or even jam I notice - except that you 'may garnish it with currant jelly.

Felicity Cloake takes you through the fundamentals when it comes to making a trifle which really come down to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Holy Trinity:

"Many of the greatest puddings are constructed from a trinity of contrasting but complementary components: the creamy, the fruity and the crisp/crumbly/ cakes. If you've got even one of these elements in your arsenal of leftovers, it's worth rooting around for the other two." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Simple or complicated? Well there are obvious shortcuts that can be taken - bought custard, no custard, tinned fruit - older recipes often used tinned fruit, and according to Felicity Cloake Nigella often uses 'expensive jarred fruit', although she is of the opinion that:

"One of the beauties of trifle is that it will embrace just about any fruit you throw at it" Felicity Cloake

Lots of the writers I looked at actually recommended frozen fruit - well berries anyway - and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall definitely thought that fruit a little past its best was a good idea. As for the creamy bit:

"A crucial leap is the realisation that most creamy things can be successfully blended together. So the last of the yoghurt pot mixed with the final spoonfuls from the crème fraïche tub might be just what you need to rustle up two romantic wine glasses of improvised trifliness. Marriages have been saved by lesser gestures." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

These are his Blackcurrant trifles - alas the recipe is not online. But it's pretty simple. If you want to do trifle 'properly' though it will take time -

"Real trifle, made with home-made sponge cake, syllabub, and a gallon of sherry must be one of the most delicious puddings known to man, but it takes an age to make from scratch." Nigel Slater/Real Fast Food

He has one recipe which he says will take a day. But I thought surely Heston Blumenthal does something even more extreme. And indeed he does. He made a trifle for Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding - Heston's royal wedding trifle - which Lydia Slater of The Daily Mail had a go at, saying:

"It contains, in fact, neither cake, custard, jam, jelly, sherry nor tinned fruit — so nothing that my trifle-crazed husband considers essential.

Instead, the Royal Trifle is a refined concoction of strawberry compote (infused with orange zest), crumbled amaretti biscuits, Marc de Champagne, meringues and saffron-infused cream, creating a cross between trifle and Eton Mess — the meringue dessert beloved of the upper crust." Daily Mail

So it seems that trifle is simultaneously something you can throw together in a moment from leftovers, or something incredibly time consuming and expensive. Even Jamie has a go at the excessive with his Epic chocolate trifle. All things to all people.

In spite of a rather repulsive description of the trifles of his youth, Nigel Slater is a fan - and was even then

"These decadent treats came in rectangular waxed-paper cartons, blue and white and proudly labelled with 'real dairy cream'. There would be one for each of us. ... Whoever made these trifles understood the true meaning of the word. They were small and frivolous. A layer of very light sponge, a little jam, soft, almost runny custard and piped cream. Nothing fancy, rather plain even, but they were a treat beyond measure."

"The entire Christmas stood or fell according to the noise the trifle made when the first massive, embossed spoon was lifted out. The resulting noise, a sort of squelch-fart, was like a message from God. A silent trifle was a bad omen. The louder the trifle parped, the better Christmas would be." Nigel Slater/Toast

It led to a lifelong love affair with this most traditional of English desserts, and he claims he has never published a book without a recipe within it. (Not true - there are none in Real Food.} So what has he got to offer? Well there are lots, so I chose just two: Exceptionally creamy lemon trifle and Nigel's delightful trifle which is made from blackcurrants. The photograph of this one is not from his normal source of The Guardian or even his own website, and the 'blackcurrants' on top look suspiciously like blueberries to me. Still you get the idea, although like these people you won't be able to make it here in Australia because we don't have blackcurrants - not even frozen I think, although I could be wrong.

Both are tart - a prerequisite for Nigel.

"The best trifles are those that offer something tart - a zestful contrast to the layers of whipped cream, sweet sponge and custard. It is why you will never find peaches or strawberries in any trifle recipe of mine. If a trifle is to work it needs a hit of sharpness." Nigel Slater/A Cook's Book

Nigella too likes rhubarb in hers, as do many others. She also offers a Ginger passionfruit trifle which would fit the bill, although it is so very, very simple that you would have to wonder whether it even fits the bill as a trifle. I mean it's just cake soaked in Bailey's with some cream and passionfruit. That combination also features in Valli Little's Easy ginger and passionfruit trifles - but there is no Bailey's.

Dare I mention Ottolenghi? Ok - yes I will. He has three on his website: Honey and apricot trifle with walnuts and lavender (honey is unusual, so is the ricotta and mascarpone that make up some of the creamy component); Mascarpone, cherry and grappa trifle (in which the cake is made from scratch) and Chestnut and caramelised clementine trifle with Aleppo and orange blossom which includes Aleppo chilli and clementines - both hard to come by here, and which also looks very complicated. The upper end of the trifle tree I think.

So there you go - trifle. I might have another go. There are thousands of recipes on the net to choose from. I think the trick might be to (a) not to douse your cakey element with too much liquid and (b) not to have too soft a cake in the first place. In England they seem to sell sponge cake specifically for making trifle which has a sugar coating. But macaroons or amaretti biscuits or those savoy sponge fingers, might do the trick. The lady who made Heston's Royal trifle said that the saffron custard was divine so that might be worth considering.


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