Miniature trifles make a fancy dessert more friendly

September 18, 2020

Browsing through a lifestyle magazine the other day, I saw a gorgeous photograph of a colorful English dessert known as trifle. It’s made with fruit, sherry, cake and rich custard topped with whipped cream, and the ingredients are layered into an elegant, decadent indulgence.

There are a wide variety of substitutions and flavor options, but one of the key requirements for making a trifle is having the correct serving piece, a trifle bowl. This is a very large bowl (usually a 4-quart capacity) with almost straight sides, set upon a dramatic pedestal. Made of clear glass (or sometimes found with tracery designs), the bowl is the perfect vessel to showcase the ingredients in the layered confection.

Since I don’t own a trifle bowl and didn’t need four quarts of sweetness, I went very small. The individual version of a trifle you see in the photo is layered in a glass Irish coffee mug. It’s obviously much narrower than the traditional bowl, but with a nod to the pedestal and perfect for a single serving.

After consulting the complex recipe for assembling a trifle, I opted to not only go small but also simplify my approach. I didn’t bake layers of sponge cake, but used chunks of angel food cake. For the first fruity layer, I opened a jar of Backyard Jams & Jellies’ dense blueberry jam and spread some across the bottom of the mug.

Cutting the angel food cake into appropriately sized chunks was easy enough, but trying to fit them snugly into a tidy layer was tougher. In imitation of true trifles, I included two cake layers and three fruit layers, but skipped the custard layer, simply topping the mug with a generous dollop of whipped cream and a scatter of blueberries.

As you may imagine, this would hardly be acceptable to a purist or someone who owns a trifle bowl and has made their share of the real thing, but for a quick and easy dessert, this miniature treat is a handy replacement. The origins of trifle are similar to a “fool,” where stewed fruit is pureed and folded into a sweet, eggy custard. Over time, the trifle evolved into its own dish with the addition of cake and, early in the American tradition, gelatin (which supports my use of the jarred jam). The other important step is soaking the cake in sherry or other fortified wine to add a boozy touch. While some prefer to sprinkle the sherry directly on the cake, I whisked it into the jam.

I’ve included recipes for my “almost” trifle in a single-serve size as well as a full-size traditional trifle. The recipe makes quite a bit of dessert and looks lovely on the table, so you might want to save this for when you have a crowd. Although this recipe has specific instructions about lining the inside of the bowl with ladyfingers, the dish is just as delicious if you simply layer the cake, custard and fruit.

You can find recipes for trifle that suggest using vanilla pudding instead of the custard, which creates a similar flavor but a slightly different texture. In this recipe, I’ve used a mix of berries, but you can always go with a single fruit if you prefer. It’s also possible to make a trifle with stone fruits like peaches and plums, so long as you peel their skins first.

Of course, as with any dessert, you can showcase chocolate, either as an ingredient in the custard or as a garnish of curly shavings scattered over the whipped cream.

Trifle for Two

1 C heavy cream
1 T sugar
1 t vanilla
1/2 C blueberry jam
1 T sherry (optional)
2 slices angel food cake*
blueberries for garnish

Whip the cream with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add sugar and vanilla, mixing just until combined; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together jam and sherry. Line the bottom of two Irish coffee mugs with 2 T jam each. Break up the angel food cake into pieces and place a layer of them snugly against the jam in the mugs. Add another layer of 1 T jam to each mug, top with another layer of cake and a final layer of jam. Top the jam with a generous dollop of whipped cream and garnish with blueberries. Yield: 2 servings. *Note: Substitute ladyfingers or sponge cake.

Traditional Trifle

2 C milk
3/4 C sugar
1/2 C flour
3 egg yolks
1 T butter
2 t vanilla
1 pt raspberries
1 pt blueberries
1 pt strawberries
2 T confectioners sugar
2 T sherry
2 C heavy cream
1 package lady fingers
1/2 angel food cake

Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy saucepan; remove from heat. Sift together flour and sugar in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Whisk in the scalded milk and then egg yolks, working quickly to avoid cooking the eggs. Cook, stirring often until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Stir in butter and vanilla. Strain the custard into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming; refrigerate until cool. In a large bowl, combine the fruit, reserving a few pieces of each type for garnish. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar and sherry; toss gently to combine and allow to macerate for 20 minutes. Whip the cream until soft peaks form; refrigerate until ready to assemble the trifle. To assemble: mix 1/3 of whipped cream into cooled custard. Place 2 C fruit in the bottom of a trifle bowl. Arrange ladyfingers vertically around the inside of the bowl, placing fruit at the top of each piece in a decorative fashion. Spoon half the custard into the center of the bowl. Tear the angel food cake into 1-inch chunks and scatter half over the custard. Spoon in half the remaining fruit and all the remaining angel food cake. Top with remaining custard and fruit. Cover the fruit completely with whipped cream and garnish with reserved berries. Refrigerate until chilled. Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

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