Trifle, an Easy Christmas Dessert

By Sandy Hu
The latest from Inside Special Fork

What’s your favorite holiday dessert? In our house, it’s bûche de Noël or trifle. We alternate them from year to year. I love the French yule log cake but it’s much more time-consuming to make than the traditional English trifle.

Trifle is a fitting Special Fork recipe because it’s mostly assembly: layering prepared sponge cake, raspberry jam, macaroons and drizzling with homemade custard that seeps between the layers of cake to make a pudding. Then the whole thing is topped with a layer of toasted slivered almonds and clouds of whipped cream.

The first time I made trifle I used an old, historical cookbook, The Presidents’ Own White House Cookbook by Robert Jones (c. 1973, Culinary Arts Institute), where I learned that Presidents Andrew Jackson and George Washington were partial to this English Christmas favorite.

Through the years, I’ve improvised and changed the recipe to what we make today.

English trifle
1 purchased sponge cake (about 8 ounces)
About 4 tablespoons Madeira or sweet sherry, divided
4 tablespoons raspberry jam, divided
About 8 almond or coconut macaroons, divided
9 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1 to 2 tablespoons brandy (optional)
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons water
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
Colored candy sprinkles or more toasted almonds, to garnish (optional)

  1. To prepare the cake layers: Cut sponge cake in 1 ½-inch cubes. In a 2-quart glass bowl, lay half the sponge cake cubes to cover the bottom of the bowl. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of the Madeira to moisten. Spread with 2 tablespoons of the jam. Crumble 4 macaroons over the jam. Repeat layers of cake, Madeira, jam and macaroons. Cover and refrigerate.
  2. To make the custard: In medium saucepan, whisk together 8 tablespoons of the sugar (1/2 cup), flour and salt. Add milk and whisk smooth. Heat over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until mixture is thickened, about 10 minutes; watch carefully to prevent burning. Add a couple of tablespoons of the hot mixture to the beaten egg yolks and stir with a fork to equalize the temperature somewhat; then pour the egg yolks into the saucepan, whisking constantly. Cook and stir 3 minutes.
  3. Remove pan from heat and stir in the extract and brandy, if using. Bring cake from the refrigerator and pour the custard over the cake, being sure to cover the entire surface. If custard is not seeping through the sponge cake layers, use a butter knife to gently poke holes through the layers to enable custard to reach toward the bottom of the bowl. Refrigerate overnight to set custard.
  4. To make whipped cream: Combine gelatin, 2 tablespoons water and remaining 1 tablespoon of the sugar in a small heatproof bowl and mix with a fork to soften gelatin. Place the bowl into a larger bowl; pour some boiling water into the larger bowl to provide indirect heat to the gelatin mixture. Stir the gelatin mixture until it is completely dissolved. Stir gelatin mixture into cream and beat cream until the mixture stands in peaks when the beater is slowly lifted.
  5. To assemble trifle: Sprinkle trifle with almonds. Gently spread whipped cream over the entire surface of the trifle, being careful not to dislodge the almonds. Chill until cream is set, about 1 hour. Garnish with sprinkles or more toasted almonds just before serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.


  • To toast slivered almonds, I use the microwave.
  • The trifle bowl doesn’t have to be glass but glass shows off the layers best. The bowl I use is 8 inches in diameter and has straight sides, allowing equal layers of ingredients from top to bottom and enabling the custard to settle evenly.
  • The amount of Madeira, macaroons and raspberry jam needed may vary, depending on the width of your bowl.

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Posted: Dec 8th by Sandy_Hu