Layers of lusciousness, from fine butter cake and juicy berries in syrup to whipped cream, custard, and lots of sweet berry goodness. My Summer Berry Trifle is an easy, endlessly-variable dessert which seems fancy at first glance. In fact, it’s more fun than fancy, and here’s how to make one you will love!
What is a trifle?
To answer this question, I turned to my favorite online food history resource, FoodTimeline.org, created by the late Lynne Olver, a brilliant, curious, tenacious and dedicated research librarian in New Jersey, who founded it in 1999 and left it humming when she passed away in 2015.
The Oxford Companion to Food notes:
“…The essential ingredients are sponge cake soaked in sherry or white wine, rich custard, fruit or jam, and whipped cream, layered in a glass dish in that order. The cream is often decorated with, for example, slivers of almond, glace cherries, angelica.”
If you’d like the recipe right now and don’t wish to scroll down to the one on this post, here is the earliest one we know about, written down in 1596, included in the FoodTimeline.org ‘s entry on the trifle. I deeply love and cherish FoodTimeline.or.
 “To make a Trifle
Take a pint of thick cream, and season it with sugar and ginger, and rose water. So stir it as you would then have it and make it luke warm in a dish on a chafing dish and coals. And after put it into a silver piece or a bowl, and so serve it to the board.”
—The Good Housewife’s Jewell, Thomas Dawson, with introduction by Maggie Black [Southover Press:East Sussex] 1996 (p. 90)
You Call That a Trifle?
No, I do not, that sounds like a big bowl of warm, aromatic cream. Not anything like this lovely and multifaceted trifle you see here in this post.
I wish to note that food history is fun and fascinating precisely because this happens a lot. Behold the first written use of the word “trifle”, but note: It’s nothing like what we consider a trifle today.
This original trifle sounds nothing like what I imagine I would have enjoyed for dessert at Downton Abbey, were I but old enough and lucky enough to have been invited to dine there, and had it ever actually existed, which it did not.’
Alan Davidson goes on to note in The Oxford Companion to Food that the evolution of this trifle-named dish to the one we know and love today occurs in the mid-18th century, still a good while back but not 1598.
That’s when it became a fancy dessert involving layers of sponge cake or biscuits (AKA cookies and small bready sweet tidbits, not Southern biscuits) layered with custard, jam, whipped cream and spirits, of which sherry became a beloved one. Almonds, candied ginger and citron, spices: Hilarity and creativity ensued and tastes varied over time.
Where did trifles get started?
England, of course! Not that there was a monopoly on confections, but the ongoing transformation of cream into a big bountiful bowl of cake, custard, jam, berries and nuts seems to have been most focused in the land where Queen Victoria came of age.
What other desserts are in the trifle family?
Trifles have many variations within the category, and as for distinct desserts that bear a strong resemblance and seem to have common roots, consider these:
Enough History! How Do I Make a Trifle?
That’s why we’re here of course, and you will be delighted to know that this is one of the simplest, most intuitive desserts you can make and by make I mean assemble out of lovely items you may even have on hand.
Or you may be able to gather them in rather than laboriously create them from scratch.
What You Will Need:
Custard sauce or vanilla pudding, though this is optional in my world. It’s part of a proper and traditional trifle and therefore it is required! Kidding, of course it’s not required! Leave that out if you like.
Reframe your trifle as a berries and cream-centric confection. Think wonderful strawberry shortcake is, and decide to make a trifle in that mode, with cake, whipped cream, and juicy berries with lots of syrup.
This is a beloved shortcut trifle widely enjoyed in the USA under the name: Punch Bowl Cake.
Cake which ideally might be a bit stale or no longer at its very best:
- That pound cake you left in the dining room under the cake stand’s dome for a day too long.
- A big birthday cake for someone who then left town on a plane and couldn’t take it along.
- 3. Layers for that birthday cake you made ahead and froze, only to find out your darling guest missed her plane and cannot come. If you have extra cake that is still good but no longer fresh and delicate, trifle is the perfect solution.
- Simple cake, such as the basic butter cake I made for this recipe from scratch, in the lovely and delightfully colorful cake pans from Wilton.
My one basic cake recipe got divided nicely into three pans: A 8-inch square -an, a 8-inch round pan, and a 13×9 pan. The latter made a thin cake, because I was intentionally seeking corners and crusty edges, since I planned to use the cake in trifle with whipped cream and pudding.
Maybe this Trifle thing is too new, and you are looking for a dessert you know and love already, something like maybe…PIE!?!?!?
How Does This Trifle Thing Work Anyway?
Ingredients from Sponsors
Adams: Adams Vanilla Extract
Dixie Crystals: Light Brown Sugar
Wilton: Bake and Bring Non-Stick Cake Pans
This post and recipe were created for #SummerDessertWeek! I was sent samples by some of the sponsor companies but as always opinions are 100% mine.
Here’s a little video to show you how the assembly of your trifle can go. I prefer sugar-sweetened fresh fruit to using gelatin, but some cooks enjoy that touch, and I would gladly scoop up a lovely bowl of this gelatin-including trifle, so let’s enjoy this walk-through! And scroll to the end of my post for my recipe…
Check out the amazing #SummerDessertWeek recipes from our bloggers today!
Ice Cream & Frozen Desserts:
- No Churn Mango Ice Cream from Daily Dish Recipes
- Loaded Ice Cream Sandwich Dessert from Who Needs A Cape?
- Strawberry Cream Ice Box Cake from Palatable Pastime
- No-Churn Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream from Rants From My Crazy Kitchen
- Ice Cream Torte with Crunchy Crumby Center from Family Around the Table
- Banana Cream Pie from A Kitchen Hoor’s Adventures
Sweet Summertime Cakes and Cupcakes:
No Bake Treats:
- Mermaid Cheesecake Marshmallow Dip from Big Bear’s Wife
- Orange Creamsicle Crunch Bars from The Domestic Kitchen
- Blueberry Buckle from Pastry Chef Online
- Mermaid Cheesecake from 4 Sons R Us
- Pecan Pie Cheesecake Bars from Back To My Southern Roots
- Black Forest Cheesecake from Sweet Beginnings
- Blackberry Cobbler from Karen’s Kitchen Stories
- Triple Berry Biscuit Trifle with Honey Whipped Cream from Nik Snacks
- Summer Berry Trifle from Nancie’s Table
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 quart whole milk
- 4 beaten egg yolks
- 1/4 cup butter, cut into chunks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- An abundance of fresh or frozen berries
- (For strawberries, trim caps, slice into bite sized pieced to make 4 cups
- Blackberries and blueberres, left as nature made them)
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- One baked two-layer cake or one pound cake or bundt cake, unfrosted
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/3 cup light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Additional berries for garnish
- Combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a heavy medium saucepan
- Stir with a whisk or spatula to mix well.
- Add milk and place over medium heat.
- Cook, stirring constantly with a whisk or spatula or spoon, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil; then stir and let it cook one minute more.
- Slowly pour about 1 cup of the hot milk mixture into the beaten eggs yolks, stirring constantly to mix them well and gently heat the egg yolks.
- When yolks are warmed up, scrape the yolk mixture into the big pan of thickened milk and stir to mix them well.
- Cook one minute more, stirring well, and remove from heat.
- Add the butter and vanilla and stir until the butter melts and everything is smoothly and evenly combined.
- Transfer to a big bowl and let cool to room temperature; then cover and refrigerate until very cold; or up to 2 days.
- Combine the brown sugar and white sugar well to mix them evenly.
- Sprinkle the strawberries with half the sugar mixture and stir well; set aside to release some juice and create a syrup.
- Sprinkle the blackberres with the remaining sugar mixture and stir well; set aside to release some juice and create a syrup.
- Have blueberries handy with these syrupy juicy friends.
- Cut the cake into big flat pieces which you can stack and layer well; no need for them to be even, but none should be extremely different from its neighbors.
- Think slabs, and think bigger is better. Or cut into 1 or 2 inch cubes and scatter and pile them together. You can't do this wrong -- it's a trifle! But you want layers, of Cake, Pudding, Berries, Cream, Repeat so think about how to make that work with the cake you have, while not worrying.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer or a large bowl, beat the cold heavy cream at medium-high speed until thickened, scraping the bowl now and then.
- Add half the brown sugar and beat, scraping the bowl now and then, until it is puffed up and very thick, holding its shape on a spoon.
- Add the remaining sugar and beat until very thick and sturdy enough to keep its shape, but not dry or cottony; set aside or cover and chill up to 3 hours.
- Set out a large deep bowl suitable for creating a trifle, preferably glass
- Gather the fruit, pudding, cake, and whipped cream.
- Create your trifle by layering: First a layer of cake; then pudding; then fruit, then whipped cream.
- Repeat this layering process three times, or until you have run out of ingredients; remembering that improvisation is fine in the world of trifles, of which this one is yours and yours alone!
- Finish the top of your trifle with extra whipped cream and a pretty flourish of berries and perhaps a sprig of fresh mint, or a scattering of edible flowers?
- Let stand for 15 minutes, or cover and chill for up to 5 hours
Make the Trifle: (The Fun Part)
- In your big bowl, layer about 1/3 of the pieces of cake in a nice even layer.
- Pour on a nice layer of pudding, to cover the berries well but not an inundation; no need to use it all up so go easy.
- Now add a good layer of berries, using about 1/3 of the berries, combining strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries, adding juice to make it tasty.
- Top the berries with a generous layer of whipped cream.
- Repeat this process twice for a total of three "layers of layers", ending with whipped cream.
- Decorate the top in the way you like: Pretty berries with their juices; fresh mint sprigs, edible flowers, or use an offset spatula to make a smooth and elegant top.
- Cover and chill for 1 hour, or up to 5 hours; serve cold.
- Use remaining trifle within one day.