Growing up in my family, eating a bowl of trifle was like opening up a Christmas stocking. You never knew what small surprises would be unearthed. Family parties weren’t complete without a heaving bowl of Marsala-kissed savioardi, smothered in a velvet blanket of homemade custard and hiding a treasure trove of fresh fruit, chocolate chunks and blobs of jam.
O, on the other hand, had a different experience. Trifle in his house was a soggy mess of supermarket sponge cake, jelly, and tinned fruit covered in premixed custard. So I can understand his reservations every time I announce that I am making a trifle. However after six years of marriage, he still announces how much he hates trifle, even while he’s cleaning his second or third bowl.
Trifle is one of my all-time favourite desserts, but trifle afficionados must follow a few rules to ensure that it doesn’t descend into a bowl of Great Aunt Mabel’s jelly and sponge slop.
Rule 1: Texture and structure are all-important
Trifle usually has a lot of wet, sweet ingredients. The softness of the custard and cream must be offset by some contrasting textures, otherwise the whole thing will feel like a bowl of mush that should be spoonfed to either your infant niece or your great great grandma. Try using some ingredients that are chewy (a few layers of praline does this job nicely) or crunchy. Try a bit of toffee, a layer of lightly milled nuts, or even the satisfying juicy crack of a whole cherry – pitted of course.
Structure is essential to a good trifle. This is where the savoiardi plays a vital role. Some people use sponge cake, a pandoro (one of those big Italian boxed sponge cakes you see in shops at Christmas) or another type of biscuit. But I swear by Savoiardi, those sugar encrusted Italian sponge fingers that Italian chefs have used in tiramisu since the dawn of… tiramisu. Savoiardi hold their shape well and the sugar coating seems to protect them from getting too soggy. A light drizzle with your favourite liqueur (Marsala is my booze-of-choice for a trifle) is all they need to soften their crispy edges. The biscuitty layers become the perfect foil to the creaminess of the custard.
Rule 2: Think of your theme
A good trifle should have some kind of flavour theme. Maybe it’s summer, and you want your trifle to display the best summer fruits you can think of. Maybe you’re a chocaholic and you want to make a trifle filled with Maltesers, Tim tams and chocolate liqueur. Maybe your trifle will come at the end of an Italian meal, so you want to use some traditional Italian dessert ingredients, such as Marsala and mascarpone.
You can be endlessly creative with a trifle, so think about what ingredients you can use to make sure you put the perfect accent on the end of your meal.
Rule 3: No tinned fruit. Ever.
Tinned peaches have no place in a trifle. Neither do tinned apricots, or, heaven forbid, tinned pears. Open a tin of fruit and you may as well be serving up a bowl of triflesque mush to the good folk at Shady Oaks Retirement Village.
Fresh fruit is a treat to be discovered in a trifle. In summer, try planting a few choice cherries (best to pit them first) or blueberries, or even a layer of mango. You can dip the cherries in chocolate if you’re feeling a bit fancy. Fresh peaches or apricots are fine, but steer clear of the tinned ones. The preserving process makes this fruit far too soft and mushy for a trifle, and provides no contrast of texture.
Rule 4: No Jelly, unless your trifle is for the kids’ table
Jelly will always turn trifle into a dessert for the kindergarten set. If you want to make a serious grown-ups trifle, steer clear of the jelly. (American readers, I am referring to jello here. American jelly – as in Australian jam – is just fine to use in a trifle.)
Rule 5: Go easy on the booze
Your sponge fingers should just be kissed by the alcohol, or juice, syrup, or whatever other liquid you choose to flavour your trifle. Otherwise they’ll go all soggy, and you’ll end up with a bowl of mush that breaks rule #1. My preferred method is to lay the biscuits in the bowl, all lined up like sweet little sardines, and sprinkle over the marsala with my thumb over the stopper. Think of the booze likeperfume. A well-placed spray or two is fine, but you don’t want to take a bath in the stuff.
Follow these five rules and trifle is sure to become a family favourite at your next get-together.
Italian-inspired trifle with cherries and almond praline
This is my latest favourite trifle that I created recently to take a dessert to a friend’s house. This was following a very Italian lunch, so my favourite trifle flavours of marsala and a perfectly sweet custardy mix of zabaglione and ricotta was in order. This recipe is best made the night before, or at least a few hours early, to help the flavours settle into each other. But remember not to decorate the top until the last minute, otherwise your praline can lose its crunch and the toffee can start to dissolve from the moisture of the trifle.
A packet of savoiardi biscuits
300g of cherries (this amount will give you a few to nibble on while you make the trifle)
Any other berries you might want to include (blueberries are pretty good)
200g dark chocolate
200g liquid glucose (I found this in the baking section of my local supermarket)
250 g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
A vanilla bean
150g ricotta cheese
120g caster sugar
To start with, I pitted the cherries, melted the chocolate and dipped the cherries in the chocolate. These went into the fridge on a sheet of baking paper to set.
Next was the praline. I took the glucose and caster sugar and dissolved it on a very low heat (stirring occasionally). Then turn up the heat to medium until it turns a golden brown. Then i scattered some almond flakes and whole almonds over a baking tray lined with paper and poured over the toffee. This sat on the bench to set.
Next, I whipped the egg yolks with sugar and vanilla seeds to make a vanilla zabaglione. Whip it until the colour lightens a few shades from yellow to a dark cream colour. Then mix a few hefty spoonfuls of ricotta in with this.
Now whip the egg whites with caster sugar until they form soft peaks. Fold this in with the zabaglione.
Your toffee should be set hard now. Break t with your hands and save some long thin interestingly-shaped shards for decoration. Put the rest in your food processor and process until its the texture of fine sand. This is your praline.
Layer a few savoiardi biscuits into your bowl and drizzle some of the marsala onto them. you want them to be damp without being soggy. Position the some of the cherries in a ring around the outside of the bowl. Cover with a layer of the zabaglione custard, and sprinkle a layer of praline over the custard. Repeat the layers, making sure you place the fruit throughout the trifle. Top with custard, and right before serving sprinkle a thick layer of praline over the top. stick the shards of toffee into the top for decoration axxxxnd serve.