All Hail the Trifle, Queen of Summer Desserts

My love affair with trifles is a new one. Until recently, I thought the classic British dessert was old-fashioned — stuffy, even. That is, until my British partner described Trifle as a dreamy, creamy and outrageously wet treat, and admitted to feeling tipsy on more than one occasion after a hearty helping. Intrigued, I decided to give Trifle another chance (perhaps literally).

“I really think trifle could be one of the most perfect desserts ever,” says Martha de Lacey, host of London’s hit supper club Muff Dining. “It has everything you could want in a pudding: so many surprises, endless variations, never the same little thing twice.”

Basically, a trifle consists of layers of cake or ladyfingers drenched in something tasty (usually alcohol), juicy fruit (sometimes lightly soaked in gelatin), and silky custard. Before serving, it’s topped with a cloud of soft whipped cream. A trifle is a heavenly blend of fluffy layers (similar to a really good tiramisu) — drunk, creamy, and fruity — but it benefits greatly from something crunchy like toasted nuts or crushed biscuits.

One of the greatest assets of a little thing is its versatility. A trifle can be incredibly unfussy — made primarily from store-bought ingredients — or it can be taken to the absolute height of culinary potential. De Lacey’s ideal bite is downright extravagant, consisting of slices of orange-flavoured panettone soaked in Marsala wine, rhubarb in a light strawberry gelatin, custard, whipped cream and caramelized almond pralines sprinkled with salt.

British food writer and author Felicity Cloake’s favorite little thing is one born out of nostalgia. “I’m staying true to the version my mom made when I was a kid,” she says. “Boudoir Cookies [ladyfingers] drenched in sweet sherry, canned raspberries, bird’s custard (made from instant powder) and whipped cream with toasted almonds. These days she uses fresh custard and fruit and it’s lovely. . . but I’ll be honest, it’s not quite the same.”

While Cloake’s favorite packaged ladyfingers — also known as savoiardi — often form the backbone of a trifle, it’s also common to use slices of store-bought pound cake, or “trifle sponge,” a type of genoise-style cake. Opting for pre-made products is not only easier but also smart, as the cake or biscuit will hold any number of delicious spirits, syrups and juices.

A little something must not be dry! Sherry is the traditional choice for keeping things moist, but let seasonal fruits dictate the flavor profile of your bite. Tropical fruits like mango or pineapple can benefit from a spritz of tequila. do you have cherries Try brandy. And consider cutting stronger alcohols with another flavorful liquid, like macerated fruit juice, for a tastier taste. Alcohol isn’t strictly necessary, of course, but it certainly adds to the experience. Try juice, coffee, or heavily brewed tea instead. De Lacey even recommends a splash of milk if your bite is chocolatey.

Whether macerated, preserved or cooked into a compote, fruit plays an important role in the trifle, giving it brilliant flavor and precious juices. Often fresh or preserved fruit is suspended in a light gelatin (the British call it “jelly”), sometimes a controversial addition. For De Lacey, jelly is a must to give a little thing its signature texture and “jiggle.”

Since this dessert has multiple layers, it’s easy to assume that little things will be difficult or time-consuming to prepare. My favorite, simplest version, I combine ladyfingers, berries macerated in sweet sherry, vanilla pudding and whipped cream. The only component that needs much prep at all is the pudding – my favorite part (I’ve written about pudding for TASTE GOOD at least twice before) and which should be velvety soft and lush. The last swing? Serve in an attractive glass bowl (a clear mixing bowl works too). After all, the vertical drama of a little thing is best admired from the side, allowing each delicious layer to speak for itself.

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