Trifle is a dessert I rarely had as a kid, although I dreamed of it often. Over the Christmas holiday, my mother would entertain me with tales of Zuppa Inglese, an Italian version of trifle, along with the many other dishes her Neopolitan-raised grandmother prepared. Home baked lady fingers or cake molded into a dish with Italian liqueurs drizzled artfully on top and then fruit and whipped cream nestled in mounds. I loved that the dish’s name included “Inglese,” as my many readings of books like The Secret Garden made me fantasize about the possibility that I was actually an English heiress who somehow became entrapped in my San Diego life. But Zuppa Inglese also made me yearn for the close-knit Italian family and traditions now absent from my life after my family’s move to California. It was the perfect hybrid of all that I desired — the comforts of a family left behind as well as the mystique of merry Olde England.
Yet as much as I begged my mother to make Zuppa Inglese for our own Christmas feasts, she refused. After all, there were only the five of us in San Diego, so she said that making homemade lady fingers was just too time consuming and also too much work for a small crowd. I’ve since learned, however, that she didn’t think the dish was worth eating without strawberries steeped in Anisette, and as she couldn’t very well serve us an alcohol-laden dessert, she opted to simply wait until we were older. This isn’t to say I suffered a lack of goodies. Between the sweet ricotta cakes, struffoli, and numerous cookies, there was no shortage of treats; but I still yearned for trifle.
My cravings were satisfied when I met my husband, whose family hails originally from places like England and Germany. Trifle was the name of the game at his family’s Christmas dessert table, although their trifle was made with pound cake and the alcohol was not in attendance. So now, after 16 years of joining my husband’s and my own family holiday traditions, I’ve become pretty adept at making this tiered holiday dessert. I’ve also realized that although homemade lady fingers in Zuppa Inglese are wonderful, trifle doesn’t necessarily have to require a lot of work.
Making trifle shouldn’t be difficult. As much as I love lady fingers drizzled with Anisette, I am rational enough to admit that my good intentions for baking them myself are more idealistic than realistic. I do, however, like to make cake. That said, if you aren’t one to bake anything, don’t let that stop you. Just buy a cake and assemble. The truth of the matter is that trifle can be one of the easiest holiday desserts you can create. In essence, making a trifle should be a trifle (pun intended). Although you can make everything from scratch, you can also simply purchase many of the layered items and then construct your trifle as you see fit.
In addition to those lovely lady fingers, there are many other items you can use for the base. My holiday favorite is gingerbread, but sponge cake is traditional, and pound cake works beautifully. The toppings themselves should be chosen according to your own individual cravings. I personally love lemon curd with my beloved gingerbread, so often use that along with a fresh berry sauce and whipped cream. But you can also use jams, pastry cream, crème fraiche, persimmons, or frozen peaches that have been thawed out and cooked in a little sugar. Trifle is sort of a kitchen sink dessert, so add in whatever you thinks sounds appealing. This includes alcohol. If Anisette or Chambord sound like nice additions, drizzle some on. If you’re not in the mood or serving the dish to children, just leave them out.
Once you’ve established your ingredients list, just layer everything in a glass bowl so you can show off the different tiers of goodies. I like to invert the top of a cake plate (which people also often use as a punch bowl) as this puts the trifle on a little stand that can be displayed on the holiday table. If you don’t have one of these, a regular large glass bowl works just as well.
So this holiday season, throw together your own trifle or Zuppa Inglese with whatever you like. This dessert actually tastes better if it sits for a day or so in the refrigerator, so it’s a great make-ahead dish for holiday parties.
Here are some basic directions along with lists of potential ingredients you can use, but really, the sky’s the limit.
How to make a trifle
1. Make or purchase your cake or cookies of choice, slicing them into 2-inch pieces.
2. Make or purchase your sauces, jams, curds or creams.
3. Cut up your fruit and cook any fruit compote you might include.
4. Whip up or purchase your whipped cream.
5. If using alcohol, have it on hand for assembly.
6. Place your bowl next to your ingredients and then layer them. I start with the cake or cookies at the bottom, and then top these with a sprinkle of whatever alcohol is to be used (Note: I omitted the alcohol from my recipe years ago to make the dish kid-friendly, but if you’re not serving children, it’s a nice addition). You can then layer on the fruit or jam so it seeps into the cake or cookies. Top these with any pastry cream, lemon curd, crème fraîche or whipped cream you decide to use and then start all over again until you have a full bow. End with a layer of whipped cream and then top with berry sauce, chocolate shavings, fruit slices, cherries, or whatever else sounds good.
Possible Trifle Bases
Possible Trifle Fillings
Jam (heating it first makes it easier to drizzle on the cake)
Greek Yogurt with orange zest mixed in
Possible Alcohols to Include
Possible Fruits and Nuts
Sliced fresh berries or frozen berries cooked into a compote or sauce (Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries)
Crystalized dried fruits