a trifling matter – a matter that lacks importance; something trivial. Similarly the verb to trifle with someone means to treat someone with a lack of respect or seriousness.
My grandmother once told me that she enjoyed making trifle more than any other kind of dessert because she could swig1 from the sherry bottle and no one would notice.
When I was asked recently to make a trifle for a dinner party, it seemed the right thing to do to follow her advice; a “proper tribute” to my grandmother, if you like, and indeed I did it with such enthusiasm there was very nearly no sherry left to pour over the sponge. However, I had a wonderful time in my kitchen that afternoon and wonder if this is the great secret of all trifle makers: get happily trollied2 while you make it.
It’s odd to that this OTT3, flamboyant4 dessert should be called “trifle” since, as you can see above, a trifle means something unimportant and easily forgotten. And a proper trifle is not that at all.
This picture is a regularly cited page from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management of 1861, and shows how beautifully mad a trifle can be. But the first reference to trifle as a dessert comes even earlier in 1598, during the reign of Elizabeth I, although it seems the Tudors didn’t use a sponge base but went straight for the cream. Queeny herself was evidently very keen on a trifle, and would expect any suitors5 to provide her with one, and often sky-high ones at that.
The basic ingredients of a trifle are always the same: sponge cake, soaked primarily in sherry (some say brandy, but I stay true to my grandmother and say “No,no, no!” …although then, because one hates to be rude, “Oh ok, perhaps a little brandy too…”) This sponge cake is covered with raspberry jam, jelly and then custard, all topped by whipped cream. The top is then covered with fresh fruit or nuts. Trifle is usually served in a large cut glass bowl so that the layers of cake, jam, custard and cream can all be whistled at.
According to Mrs Beeton, it is simply an excellent way of using up all those leftover sweet things and turning them into something fabulous. These days, we tend not to have these sweet things lying about and therefore making a trifle has become more of a special occasion thing. Which is why you see so much of it about at Christmas.
A trifling matter? Not a bit.
MY GRANDMOTHER’S SHERRY TRIFLE
- 800g berries. Usually strawberries but raspberries won’t kill anyone
- 250g sugar
- 1l jelly (my nan made her own but I buy cubes)
- 75g custard powder
- 2l milk
- 1½-2 Madeira cake, cubed (Nicer Kate uses sponge fingers or ladies’ fingers)
- 4 tbsp sherry (enough to soak the cake, but leaving enough for the chef to swig out the bottle)
- 500 ml double cream
- Swig sherry.
- Put 600g of the fruit in a pan with some sugar and heat gently until it makes a sauce.
- Put cake at the bottom of a glass bowl, cover with heated fruit and sherry. Leave to soak.
- Swig sherry.
- Cover cake with jelly. Leave to chill in fridge until set
- Make (or buy) custard. Cover jelly with custard. Chill again.
- Swig sherry.
- Whip cream till thick. Cover custard with cream.
- Consider opening a second bottle of sherry.
- Cut remainder of fruit in halves and decorate the top of trifle.
- Fall asleep at kitchen table.
1 – to swig – drink large mouthfuls, often straight from a bottle
2 – to get trollied – to get drunk
3 – OTT – over the top; exaggerated
4 – flamboyant – ostentatious, extravagant, OTT (!)
5 – suitor – old fashioned. When a man put forward a proposal for marriage. Gifts were expected.
(c) 2016 Kayte & Nicer Kate. Authors assert moral rights