Sooner or later most food-related conversations come back to what I personally believe to be the central dilemma of human existence – what would you have for your last meal? (On a country where capital punishment has been off the statue books for over 40 years, our fascination with the idea is perhaps somewhat curious, but somehow “name your favourite three courses” doesn’t quite pack the same punch.)
Mock you may, but I’ve wasted many hours agonising over the number of courses allowed (cheese and pudding?), or whether any of us would really be in the mood for Heston with death looming just beyond the port. My order changes as often as a chef’s special, but one thing that’s constant is my choice of pudding. Oysters and steak frites may come and go, but, as far as I’m concerned, the trifle is not for turning.
Sadly I seem to be in minority these days – although people go jelly-kneed at trifle’s exotic, but considerably less interesting cousin, the tiramisu, there’s less and less of a call for the British version of “wet cake” and custard, as an ex of mine so charmingly put it. Two people who share my passion, however, are food writers Helen Saberi and and the late Alan Davidson, the mastermind behind the Oxford Companion to Food, who are also the proud authors of an entire book on the subject, entitled, simply Trifle (Prospect Books, 2009).
Helen echoes my sentiments beautifully when she talks of the “sensual pleasures” of experiencing, in succession, “the light frothy cream, the smooth, velvety custard, the tangy fruit mingling with the bouquet of wine (or sherry or liqueur), and perhaps a touch of almondy crunchiness from ratafias or macaroons, and lastly the sweet, soft but crumbly texture of the sponge or sponge fingers.” Alan, 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.”
Their book, which contains nearly a hundred trifle recipes from the last 500 years, is a wonderful example of the versatility of this classic dish; anyone who believes that the only bone of contention is the inclusion of jelly is in for a surprise. As Jane and Alan point out, “variations on the trifle theme – all delicious – seem to us to be just about as infinite as stars in the sky”. And thank goodness for that.
Not for nothing do Helen and Alan devote an entire page to the question of trifle architecture – success relies upon solid foundations. My mum, who should take full credit for my devotion to the dish, uses finger-shaped boudoir biscuits while Mary Berry, in her Christmas Collection, opts for the larger trifle sponge. Both are made from a rather dry sort of sponge cake coated with sugar and sold specifically for this purpose. Sarah Raven demands homemade Madeira cake in Complete Christmas Food & Flowers and Nigella a loaf cake in Feast.
Much as I love the idea of baking a cake specifically for a dish which deserves the very best of ingredients, I find the cake, without its brittle sugar coating, goes soggy too quickly: you want it plump with booze and fruit juices, but it shouldn’t disintegrate on the tongue. The boudoir biscuits are the best option, because there’s a greater proportion of sugar to cake, which helps them retain a slight crispness, even up to serving. Sarah’s amaretti are a brilliant addition though: sweetly nutty, and defiantly crunchy, they work wonderfully with the riot of fruit and cream above.
Both Mary Berry and Nigella spread their cakes with jam, which does add an extra hit of fruit, but, although I suspect it would probably be a popular choice for the younger members of the family, it makes things too cloyingly sweet for my taste. And they’ve got their selection packs to keep them happy.
One of the beauties of trifle is that it will embrace just about any fruit you throw at it: Trifle contains recipes containing mango, pineapple and banana; lemons and even crystallised cacti. Although at this time of year my mum uses tinned raspberries for her trifle, they’re often rather mushy: I like Sarah Raven and Good Food magazine’s idea of substituting frozen fruit, which is increasingly available, and more robust. (Mary Berry uses tinned pears, which are one of the few fruits which do remain firm in the can, but they have a slight graininess that is rather too similar to the sponges for my liking.)
Nigella, of course, goes for more expensive jarred fruit, which is a better option, especially when marinated in booze, but, as this is a Christmas trifle, I decide to plump for the winter fruit compote that’s one of my favourite breakfasts at this time of year. Soaked in orange juice, and lightly spiced with cinnamon and cloves, the dried fruit gives the whole dish a distinctly festive feel, while retaining a slight chewiness which guarantees it won’t dissolve into the background.
Turning to jelly
Even people who claim not to like trifle (I don’t believe them) have an opinion on the desirability of jelly as an ingredient. I’ve always considered it the preserve of the shop-bought trifle, and as such, rather beneath my dignity, but Helen Saberi makes a convincing case for it as “a solid sheet of load-bearing substance – the counterpart of a screeded concrete floor”.
Rather than being the johnny-come-lately that I’d assumed, jelly has been added to trifles by misguided folks since the 18th century, but I’m not alone in my prejudice. When she contributed a celebratory jelly trifle recipe to the 50th anniversary issue of Alan Davidson’s periodical, Petis Propos Culinaire, Saberi found herself lampooned by readers who complained the trifle was “more suited to a school treat than a gastronome’s table”.
Not wanting to ally myself with such snobbish sorts (what’s wrong with a school treat, after all?) I give Saberi’s recipe a try. The results are not as bad as I’d feared; the jelly adds a bouncy robustness of texture to the base which is actually quite pleasant, but, in combination with custard and cream, it reminds me less of a school treat and more of an infant’s party. Blinkered I may be, but there’ll be no jelly in my perfect trifle.
In the absence of screeded concrete, the support must come from a layer of custard. Although I have an oft-repeated (in the vain hope of garnering a lifetime’s supply) soft spot for the Bird’s variety, even I have to admit that, for a special occasion like Christmas, the real sort is probably more appropriate. Helen Saberi goes the whole hog, making one with double cream which, although it sets beautifully, is quite outrageously rich. Nigella goes for a half and half mixture of milk and cream, which I find more palatable (after all, there’s going to be a layer of whipped cream on top too), but which is easier to thicken than the all-milk custard deployed by Rose Prince.
BBC Good Food mix their custard with vanilla essence and mascarpone. Not only does this make it overpoweringly vanilla-flavoured, but the cheese gives it a slightly odd texture. A good custard shouldn’t need any such foreign intervention.
Although I’ve focused principally on traditional trifles here, having extracted a personal recommendation from Nigella herself during her appearance on Word of Mouth last week, I’m duty bound to try her favourite festive trifle, the chocolate and cherry version in Feast.
Chocolate loaf cakes spread with cherry jam and soaked in cherry brandy, topped with morello cherries, chocolate custard and double cream. Although I haven’t enjoyed chocolate custard since I was at school, I have to admit this recipe is a knockout – like the thickest of hot chocolates, tempered with a fruity, alcoholic hit. I love it – but not quite as much as the subtler vanilla custard and sherry variety.
How to top it
Helen Saberi tops her trifle with a magnificent syllabub, made from a mixture of lemon zest and juice, sugar, white wine and orange flower water and double cream. It’s light, frothy and utterly delicious, but, although it would make a brilliant dessert in its own right, the flavours are wasted here. A thick layer of whipped cream, as used in every other recipe, provides the delicate foil to the sweet custard and boozy, fruity base.
Flaked almonds, as deployed by Nigella in her slightly more orthodox Anglo-Italian trifle (which my lucky sister’s mother-in-law makes for Christmas every year, and I will be sorely missing this Christmas day) add a little crunch to the dish, and the pomegranate seeds, well, they just look nicely festive.
Trifle, although a sacred dish, is not one hidebound by ridiculous ritual. 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. Just don’t mention the dream topping …
Serves 6–8 (depending on enthusiasm for trifle)
For the fruit compote:
4 handfuls of dried fruit – I like a mix of figs, prunes and apricots
½ cinnamon stick
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
For the custard:
300ml whole milk
300ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, slit in half and seeds scraped out
6 egg yolks
3 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
1 packet boudoir biscuits (also sold as lady fingers or savoiardi)
100ml sweet sherry
1 packet ratafia or amaretti biscuits
300ml double cream
15g flaked almonds, toasted
Seeds of ¼ pomegranate
1. Start by making the compote. Put all the ingredients into a small pan and barely cover with cold water. Heat gently and then simmer for about 15 minutes until the fruit is plump and the liquid has become slightly syrupy. Set aside and allow to cool.
2. Meanwhile, make the custard. Put the milk and cream into a thick-bottomed pan with the vanilla pod and seeds on a gentle heat. Stir, then bring it to just below a simmer; do not allow it to boil. Beat the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour together in a large bowl.
3. Remove the vanilla pod from the hot milk and pour the milk on to the yolk and sugar mixture, stirring all the time.
4. Turn the heat down to medium-low, and pour the custard back into the pan. Stirring slowly and continuously, cook until it coats the back of a wooden spoon – the longer you cook it, the thicker it will be. If it doesn’t appear to be thickening after 10 minutes, you may have the heat slightly too low, but don’t turn it up dramatically or you’ll spoil all your hard work. (Alternatively, if you’re not feeling terribly brave, suspend a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, pour the yolk and milk mixture into that, and proceed as above.) Bear in mind you’ll be tied to the stove for at least 20 minutes, so put some good music on. Decant into a jug to cool, pressing some clingfilm on to the surface to prevent a skin forming.
5. Line a glass bowl with boudoir biscuits and, after picking out the spices (3 cloves, remember) spoon the compote and juices over the top. Pour over the sherry and then scatter over the amaretti. Dollop the cooled custard on top, and then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate until set.
6. Whip the cream to soft peaks, spoon on top of the trifle and chill for at least two hours before serving. Just before serving, arrange the almonds and pomegranate seeds on top – if you leave them there too long the seeds will bleed colour into the cream, and the nuts will go soggy.
Is trifle truly one of Britain’s greatest contributions to dessert, or a revolting medieval mess that’s best left to the toothless and the Italians? What do you put in your version (any savoury suggestions?) and if not trifle, what would you choose for the grand finale of your final meal?
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