Sunday, May 19, 2013

Strawberry Trifle

Robin holding huge strawberry trifle at party
Just a Trifle for Dessert

Recipe by Robin

Seasonal Eating has just passed the 100,000 mark for individual pageviews. Thank you, readers! In celebration, here is a recipe from another recent celebration, the Celtic/UK Themed 50th Natal Anniversary of my friend Rox, an enthusiast of all things British, from King Arthur to Stonehenge to fine tea. As Ms. Rox was garbed in uncharacteristically royal attire (stitched up locally by the Royal Dressmaker, no less), this queenly dessert was perfect for the occasion. But let me back up. How many non-Brit readers have ever tasted a trifle or know how they’re made? If my research is any indicator, not many…including myself until just recently.

With Extra Ladyfingers Lining Sides of Trifle Dish
What is a trifle, anyway? (Bear with us here, British readers.) Similar to the Irish Tipsy Parson, it’s layers of leftover cake or cookies soaked with significant amounts of alcohol then layered in a straight-sided glass dish with fruit, custard, and whipped cream. Raspberries are traditionally used, but any soft seasonal fruit is acceptable. It’s also traditional to use berry jam in place of fresh fruit, and I’ve even seen recipes for trifles with stewed, semi-pulverized pears. UK-based food blogger Ms. Dolly over at Eating Kent suggests breaking tradition with cocoanut cake layers sprinkled with rum. And the UK-based Caked Crusader alters tradition by stacking up layers in a springform cake pan.

Final Layer: Whipped Cream and Decoration
The cake or cookies are broken up into bite-sized bits, then sprinkled with sherry, rum, brandy, liqueur such as Grand Marnier, or a combination of one of these fortified spirits and white wine. Angel food cake, sponge cake, pound cake, and even wholewheat raisin cake (especially here in Santa Cruz) can be used. You could also make or buy sponge fingers, which are known as ladyfingers in the US. Dry, packaged ladyfinger biscuits, macaroons, amaretti, or biscotti (broken into chunks) are also possibilities.

Pouring Hot Milk into Custard Paste
Very Important: Mix Milk and Custard Paste Well
As far as custard, most traditional recipes call for Bird’s custard, made in the UK and available at World Market and through Amazon. Bird’s magic thickening agent is cornstarch (cornflour in continental lingo), and it contains no eggs. Any type of milk can be used. It’s not overly thick, so it seeps into the cake and fruit layers most deliciously. Don’t cook Bird’s too quickly or you’ll burn it (as I did). Use low to medium heat for best results. You could choose to make a classic vanilla custard with both cornstarch and eggs instead.

Custard Being Poured Over Strawberries and other Layers
Pouring the Last Custard Layer
The trifle will need to chill for 8 or more hours before adding the whipped cream layer and serving. Don’t make the mistake that I did and fill the trifle dish to the top before adding the whipped cream, especially if you need to transport the trifle. Whipped cream is surprisingly heavy and will cause the dish to overflow. I recommend at least ¾” space at the top of the dish. For best results, apply the whipped cream and decorations when you get to your party destination.

One final note: be sure to use enough alcohol. Even when cake layers smell alcoholic enough to make you a little lightheaded, remember that custard, fruit, and whipped cream will dilute the booze. Adding a touch of alcohol to the whipped cream layer adds subtle flavor and lovely aroma to the trifle. As always, feel free to get creative and/or adapt the recipe to use ingredients on hand. Enjoy, and thanks again for your readership!

Trifle Overflowing Trifle Dish
Don't Fill This Full!
Strawberry Trifle
serves about 20, for 10-cup dish

4 tbsp. Bird’s custard
2 tbsp. sugar
1 quart 2% fat milk
3 pints ripe strawberries
4 dozen ladyfinger biscuits (1 package) or ladyfingers
~1½ cups dry sherry, divided (can use part white wine)
1 pint whipping cream
~1 tsp. sugar

Custard layer  prep:
I made the Bird’s custard first, to give it a little time to cool before adding it to the trifle. I also found that making the custard in two pint-sized batches, per instructions on container, made it less likely to burn,. Perhaps you are better at finessing larger quantities. I did not have good luck with the Bird’s microwave instructions.

Mix 2 tbsp. Bird’s custard with 1 tbsp. sugar in heat-proof bowl. Mix in 1 – 2 tbsp. milk taken from 1 pint. Stir vigorously into a smooth paste. Transfer remaining milk from pint to heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until almost boiling (don’t scald).

Pour hot milk into custard paste in bowl a little at a time, stirring constantly. Stir until well combined; the success of your custard depends upon thorough mixing.

Return custard to saucepan, and heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

Repeat the process for the second custard layer.

Fruit layer prep:
Wash strawberries. Reserve about 5 of the largest, ripest, shapeliest to decorate the trifle top.  Slice the remainder. Sweeten with a little sugar if under-ripe.

Biscuit or Cake layer prep:
Break biscuits or tear ladyfingers into ~1 inch bits.

Assembling the Trifle:
Place half of the biscuits or cake into the bottom of the trifle dish. Sprinkle evenly with ½ cup plus 2 tbsp. dry sherry or combination of sherry and white wine for milder taste.

Add sliced berry layer and press down gently to even it out.

Pour on 2 cups of custard.

Add second layer of remaining biscuits or cake. Sprinkle with ½ cup plus 2 tbsp. sherry and/or white wine.

Add second layer of strawberries. Many cooks like to place some of the strawberries upright along the edges of the trifle dish in this layer to show off the fruit and make the trifle look a bit fancier.

Add the second layer (2 cups) of custard.

Chill the trifle thoroughly, from  8 hours up to 24 hours.

Piping Whipped Cream on Top of Trifle
DIY Pastry Bag 
Whipped Cream and Decorations Layer:
Mix the cream with about ½ - 1 tsp. sugar and 2 – 4 tbsp. sherry. Taste and adjust amounts. Whip cream to form medium-stiff peaks. Drop or pipe onto trifle. If you don't have a pastry bag, fill a ziplock bag with the cream and zip closed. Cut a small hole in one corner, and squeeze the cream out onto the trifle.

Choose the most perfect strawberry and place in center of cream topping. Slice other reserved berries in half and place in pattern around center strawberry.

Serve immediately (or chill again before serving). Acknowledge your compliments gracefully and be prepared to return home with an empty trifle dish. 

Hand Adding Whole Strawberry to Top of Trifle
Topping Perfection


  1. That looks extremely regal! Fresh fruit is definitely the best, and so is Bird's custard for this, fresh custard never sets properly in a trifle.

    Congratulations on your first trifle! I feel oddly proud.

    Maybe I should try a pumpkin pie or something in a cross Atlantic desert swap?

    1. Thanks for the tips, Ms. Dolly. Good to know not to use regular custard. I'm still learning the art of preparing Bird's & had a bit of an overflow in the microwave. So from now on it's "on the hob"--!

      An even better American dessert to try (since you're gluten free) is Bananas Foster, similar to trifle in that it features alcohol, fruit, and milk product. Some people use rum in place of the liqueur:


      The other link didn't work for me, I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of Bananas Foster. Pretty trifle, Robin!