Christmas Trifle

The word trifle comes form the Old French "trufle," which literally means something whimsical or of little consequence. And that's exactly what the trifle is: a light, easy to make and easy to eat, colorful dessert. Despite their easy preparation and light texture, trifles can look quite impressive on your table when served in the traditional glass bowl because of the colorful layers they contain.

Trifle is a traditional English dessert, often called the quintessential English desert, dating back to the 16th century. It started off as a light frothy desert consisting of cream, rosewater, and spices, and by the 18th century it has transformed into the dessert we know today: a light, cold, layered dessert consisting of cake, cream, custard, and fruit. In the Victorian times, trifle was seen as a way of finishing up leftovers of other deserts, and today it's a favorite at birthday parties, Sunday lunches, and men's clubs in Britain.

There's a long-standing, good-natured controversy about what the "proper" ingredients are for a trifle. Since nearly everyone in England and many of English descent have grown up with homemade trifle, it's no surprise that there are so many variation on this favorite dessert. Some have modernized the dessert with the addition of Jello while some stick to fresh or canned fruit. The use of custard made from scratch or from powder is debated, and many disagree over which alcohol to use, it any. The moral of the story seems to be "if you like it, put it in."

Here's a great recipe for a fairly traditional trifle, and of course we mention some appropriate substitutions.

What You'll Need:

  • 1 clear glass serving bowl (a traditional trifle bowl is on a pedestal)
  • 1 pkg ladyfingers
  • 2-3 ripe bananas
  • 1 can pear halves
  • 1 can peach halves
  • 1 small carton whipping cream
  • 1 glass sherry or brandy (optional)
  • custard mix (such as Bird's Custard) - enough for 4-6 cups of custard
  • raspberry jam
Start by making your custard - follow the directions on the custard mix packet and make 4-6 cups. There are normally quick microwave directions. Let it cool. When cool, peel off the skin on the top before you use the custard.

As the custard cools, spread the jam onto the individual ladyfingers and lay them in the bowl to cover the bottom. Next slice the canned peaches and pear and the bananas onto the "jammed" ladyfingers.

Drip some of your sherry (or brandy) on top of that so that it works its way down to the ladyfingers and softens them. Use as much sherry or brandy as your own taste dictates. You may also want to drip some juice from the canned fruit onto your layers if you want the ladyfingers extra soft. You can omit the alcohol all together and just use the canned fruit juice to soften your ladyfingers if there will be children eating the desert.

Spoon some of your cooled custard on top of the fruit. You now have one layer of trifle. Do as many layers as your ingredients and the space in your serving bowl allow: ladyfingers with jam, then the fruit, then your liquid (sherry, brandy, or canned fruit juice), then custard. Three layers are common.

When your last layer is finished, put the trifle in the fridge and let it sit for a few hours to let the flavors mix together. Although it's best to let your trifle sit for a few hours to let the flavors meld, the actual preparation time takes only about 15 minutes. Trifle is a great desert to make ahead on a busy day like Christmas, since it takes little time to put together and the long it sits the better it tastes.


Many people do not like alcohol in their trifle, so it is common to use juice from the canned fruit to soften the ladyfingers instead of sherry or brandy. Some people also use rum.

Broken up sponge cake can be used instead of ladyfingers. This does not need as much liquid to soften, so adjust your proportions accordingly.

Some people prefer to use Jello instead of canned fruit. To do this, make your Jello mixture (raspberry or strawberry works well) and pour it over your sponge cake or lady fingers before it sets. This way it soaks into the cake and creates a pleasing texture. No extra liquid (sherry, brandy, or canned fruit juice) needs to be used to soften the ladyfingers (or sponge cake) if you use Jello.