The Colourful & Layered Origins of Trifle Dessert

Words: Robyn Samuels

For some, Christmas is a holy day commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ; for others, it’s about the gifts – but for South Africans, it’s a national trifle-eating contest. After having Christmas lunch, it’s tradition to visit loved ones and wish them a merry Christmas, but mostly to judge who’s trifle is the best. Although your mother’s is the one trifle that will always have your heart and gut, you politely thank ‘aunty Mary’. And on the drive back home, you all gossip about how it was a little sweet, a little dry, or my favourite – very boozy.

There’s nothing more nostalgic and festive than trifle. Rainbow colours beautifully layered, from the creamy custard to the sherry-laden sponge cake, wobbly jelly and peach slices. All topped off with a layer of fresh cream and almond flakes.

The Origins of Trifle

Like many traditional dishes and desserts in South African culture, trifle is one that has divided the nation – some think it’s a hodgepodge dessert that resembles dog food. But for those who were raised on Sunday jelly and custard, it’s the trifecta of desserts.

The origins of trifle are more layered than, uhm, trifle. If you’ve ever had the honour of being on trifle duty, you’ll know that the base is a crucial component. Similar to making French toast with day-old brioche, a firm sponge cake is usually best, and prevents the cake from becoming soggy after soaking it in simple syrup/sherry. In fact, it’s believed that this dessert was invented as a creative way to repurpose stale cake.

eton mess

Trifle is a refrigerated dessert of English origins and apparently derived from another national dessert, a fool, better known as ‘strawberry fool’, which is similar to Eton Mess.

A fool is a melange of strawberry compote or fresh strawberries and sweetened heavy cream. It was only in 1585 when this dessert became recognised as ‘trifle’. Trifle was first popularised by Thomas Dawson in his cookbook titled The Good Huswifes Jewell, but the original ingredients and method varied greatly. One of the earlier versions from Dawson’s book included whipped cream infused with sugar, ginger as well as rosewater, which resembled more of a fool dessert.

It was only around the 1750s when trifle became a popular dessert. Before then, people used the term ‘trifle’ to refer to a fool dessert. The version of trifle most of us enjoy today, can be traced to two cookbooks published in mid-18th century England. These versions used biscuits drenched in wine, topped with a layer of custard and instead of fresh cream they used syllabub, a sweet dish made by curdling milk or sweet cream in wine or cider.

English cookbook author, Hannah Glasse, most credited for her book, The Art of Cookery, was the first to include jelly in trifle. This version was included in another book of Glasse’s, The Compleat Confectioner, published in 1760. In the recipe, jelly is made with calves’ feet. We’re talking about the 18th century, meaning people didn’t have the convenience of purchasing strawberry-flavoured jelly or gelatin powder at grocery stores. Jelly was made the old-school way by cooking down calves’ hooves to produce gelatin, and was used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Because making jelly was such a laborious process, household staff were tasked with making it, ultimately reserving it as a delicacy for the rich.

Another version from The Dean’s Cream, published in Cambridge, England, is closer to the South African version and incorporates sponge cake instead of biscuit. The other ingredients veer from more modern recipes with the inclusion of strawberry jam, macaroon biscuits and ratafia biscuits soaked in sherry.

Traditional Trifle Ingredients

It’s not entirely certain how the dessert came to South Africa, but being a Commonwealth country, it makes sense that this English dessert would become a local fave. Thankfully, today’s version doesn’t require cooking calves’ hooves to make jelly.

Recipes differ from family to family, depending to taste preferences, but trifle usually has at three to four distinct layers. Some might use lady fingers’ biscuits, Swiss roll or sponge cake as base ingredients, drenched in wine/sherry or simple syrup for those who prefer it without alcohol; topped with custard, fruity jelly and fresh fruit or canned fruits. The final layer is fresh cream, sprinkled with almond flakes, nuts or chocolate shavings. However you make your trifle, I hope it’s not too dry, too sweet or boozy – unless that’s how you like it.

If you want to try something different this year, try this recipe for Festive Chocolate Truffle Trifle

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