The Resourceful Origin Of The English Trifle

According to the dictionary (Merriam-Webster, to be specific), a trifle is something that is unimportant or has little value. Well, that is the primary definition, but the secondary one is not such an insignificant thing. Instead, it's a classic British dessert made of cake, custard, fruit, and cream and traditionally served up at Christmastime in the U.K. (although it can be eaten at any other time of year, as well). The very first trifles date to the Elizabethan era, but these seem to have involved little more than cream and flavorings and maybe some fruit. The cake was added to the mix in the early 18th century, seemingly as an economical measure to use up baked goods that would otherwise grow stale. By the middle of that same century, broken cookies, too, were also appearing in trifles.

Many other desserts have been designed to use up leftover bits of cake, bread, and cookies, ranging from the Italian zuppa inglese to the French pain perdu (which is what French toast is called in France) to good old-fashioned bread pudding. Even the new-fangled cake pops (a creation of the early '00s) are often touted as a way to use up leftover cake — frosting and all.

How to make a trifle

If you want to make your own trifle or set of mini trifles, you don't need to start with leftover cake, of course. Instead, you can simply bake or buy one and cut it into chunks. The spongier kinds of cookies such as ladyfingers or soft macaroons will also work. (Not macarons, although you could always incorporate a few of these pricey little items if you want a not-so-thrifty trifle.) If the cake is particularly dry, you can moisten it with some type of liquid — rum, brandy, or sherry for a "tipsy trifle," or orange juice for an alcohol-free one. You'll then cover it with a layer of pudding or custard, while some British trifles even have a layer of Jell-O, as well (such is the case with our own holiday trifle recipe). If you add any fruit such as berries or sliced bananas, these will typically be placed on top of the pudding (and the Jell-O, if you're using it).

Depending on how tall your bowl is, you can add another layer of cake chunks to your trifle, followed by more pudding and fruit, or you can just leave it with a single layer of each. When you're within an inch or so of the top, finish off the trifle with a thick layer of whipped cream, then go to town with sliced nuts, shaved chocolate, or any other decorations you like. Or not, since trifle doesn't have to look fancy to taste great.