peaches for trifle

The best summer desserts are simple to make, portable for picnics, and highlight the season’s sweet, luscious fruit. Trifle would be at the top of my own list.

While its name might lead you to think that this dish is of little consequence, it belongs in the pantheon of fantastic frugal food, along with panzanella (another wonderful summer dish) and pain perdue (good anytime of the year or day). Back when little bits of bread or cake were far too valuable to toss away, even if stale as a board, cooks invented ingenious ways to use up every last crumb. Dry cake has a way of soaking up endless flavor and, in the process, transforming itself into a silken gift.

booze for trifle

A recent pile of cake trimmings, a bit too much creme fraiche in my refrigerator, and a few overripe peaches, combined with favorite pantry staples, Knob Creek Bourbon and Sonoma Syrup, melted together into a most heavenly dessert. Sherry, amaretto, Cointreau, or even orange juice could have stood in for the simple syrup and booze, but do keep in mind that the English call this Tipsy Cake for good reason.

While trifle properly appears in a glass-footed, straight-sided bowl, making it in a portable container means you can bring this dessert to a picnic to share its goodness.

Following its humble, serendipitous origins, I think it best to avoid recipes when making trifle, as no two will be the same. (Otherwise, you’ve actually gone out to buy all the ingredients rather than looking around your kitchen for odds and ends to use up.) A quick run to the corner store is fine for one or two, but if you’re ticking off every ingredient on the list while at a grocery store, then you’ve kinda, sorta lost the heart of this dish.

trifle cake


What you’ll need:

1. Enough stale cake or cookies to fill 1/3 of your container.

2. Enough fresh, summer fruit to fill another 1/3. If you don’t have enough, good-quality jam is good, too.

3. Enough yogurt, whipped cream, mascarpone, creme fraiche or similar creamy ingredient to fill the final 1/3.

4. Booze or juice sweetened gently with simple syrup or sugar or jam.

5. If desired, flavorful gilding such as vanilla, citrus zest, fresh herbs or cocoa powder.

Like a lasagna, it’s all about layering and eyeballing. The most important steps are making sure the cake gets brushed with plenty of liquid and that it’s in direct contact with the creamy diary. That’s how it will melt into lusciousness. If you’re fancy, you can take extra time to arrange the fruit into colorful layers, like those sand-filled souvenirs you see at truck stops.

Finish by smoothing the top with a creamy layer. You can reserve a few pieces of fruit for garnish later, or enjoy — like I do — that lovely expanse of white that magically hides so many layers beneath.

Now comes the tough part: waiting. The trifle needs its beauty rest just like we do. A four-hour nap in the fridge will bring together the ingredients, but eight hours is what it really needs, if not a full-on, twelve- to twenty-four hour deep sleep. After that, a few serving bowls and spoons are all you need to serve and enjoy.

peach trifle finished

Summer Trifle 20 July,2009Thy Tran

  • Love a peachy trifle, though I more often make a raspberry or strawberry trifle. For the sake of my husband who has an aversion to messy looking foods–and, let’s face it, trifle served from a big bowl can look pretty messy–I always make individual trifles. Just posted it Friday morning. Ready to make some with peaches as soon as I can get my hands on some really wonderful ones.


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor