Traditional English Trifle

Individual portions of traditional English trifle in stemmed portions with sliced strawberries and raspberries on top
Traditional English Trifle. The Spruce
  • Total: 40 mins
  • Prep: 20 mins
  • Cook: 20 mins
  • Servings: 8 servings
Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)
265 Calories
7g Fat
30g Carbs
21g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 265
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 7g 9%
Saturated Fat 4g 20%
Cholesterol 92mg 31%
Sodium 184mg 8%
Total Carbohydrate 30g 11%
Dietary Fiber 2g 9%
Protein 21g
Calcium 125mg 10%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

An English trifle is a quintessential dessert that has graced British tables for more than four centuries. This decadent-looking treat is simply luscious and when made with alcohol, it's called a "tipsy cake." Trifle variations abound—some with jelly and some not, while the fruit is a must-have for some and a turn-off to others.

Essentially, a trifle needs a sponge cake soaked in sherry (for adults) or fruit juice (for a nonalcoholic version), a thick layer of creamy custard, and a deep layer of lightly whipped fresh cream. The rest is all about personal preference.

A trifle made with jelly (the U.K. name for gelatin) might be more appealing to children (leave out the sherry, too). If you prefer a trifle without jelly, simply proceed without it—this will be quicker to make because it doesn't need to set up in the fridge. Both are equally delicious.

A footed trifle bowl is traditional and makes an elegant presentation for the famous British dessert. If you don't have one, make it in any large glass dish, or assemble it in individual glasses.

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Ingredients

  • 6 ounces/160 g sponge cake (or pound cake; halved and cut into thick slices)
  • 3 tablespoons sweet sherry
  • 1/2 cup/135 g unflavored English gelatin (see the kitchen notes)
  • 10 ounces/300 g fresh strawberries (or raspberries; if frozen, defrosted)
  • 2 cups/500 mL thick homemade custard (or canned)
  • 2 cups/500 mL whipping cream (softly whipped)
  • Garnish: sliced strawberries or whole raspberries
  • Garnish: toasted flaked almonds

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    English trifle ingredients
    The Spruce
  2. Line the bottom of the trifle bowl or glasses with the cake slices. Sprinkle with the sherry and leave to soak for 5 minutes.

    Line the bottle of glass or dish with cake slices
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  3. If using fresh strawberries, slice thickly (reserve a few for decoration), if using previously frozen, leave whole. Lay the fruit evenly over the cake. Press down lightly with a fork to release the juices.

    Add fruit evenly over cake slices
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  4. Place the jelly slab into a microwavable measuring cup and cover with 3.4 ounces/100 mL cold water and heat for 1 minute in a 750-watt microwave. Stir well and add enough additional cold water to make 1 pint/570 mL. Pour this liquid gelatin over the fruit and sponge to cover. Place the dish into the refrigerator and leave until the gelatin is set.

    Pour liquid jelly over fruit slices and cake. Refrigerate
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  5. Once set, spoon a thick layer of custard on top.

    Add custard on top of fruit slices and cake
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  6. Finish with a thick layer of whipped cream either spooned over or piped using a piping bag.

    Add whipped cream over custard
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  7. Decorate with strawberry slices or raspberries and toasted flaked almonds, if using.

    Finished English trifle
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  8. Serve and enjoy!

Tips

  • If you don't have sponge cake, you can use 6 ounces/160 g packages trifle sponges or sponge fingers instead.
  • Jelly in the UK is gelatin. The jelly can be bought in tablet form and made up following the packet instructions. A 135 g slab will make 1 pint/570 mL of liquid jelly. Place the jelly slab into a microwavable jug, cover with 100 mL cold water and heat for 1 minute in a 750-watt microwave. Stir well and make up to 1 pint/570 mL with cold water and use in the recipe as above.
  • If you have some trifle leftover, cover the dish and store it in the refrigerator. It will keep for up to 3 days. The sponge will soak up the layers and it will not look as beautiful, but it will remain delicious.

Can a Trifle Be Made in Advance?

Over time, a trifle will settle to the bottom and lose its layers, so you don't want to make it too early. If using gelatin, prepare the bottom layers with enough time for it to set up. You can also prepare all of the ingredients and have them ready in the refrigerator. It's generally best to finish assembling a trifle no more than an hour in advance.

Recipe Variations

This traditional British trifle recipe is just the beginning, and you can take it anywhere you like.

Why Is It Called a Trifle?

The word "trifle" is defined as "a thing of little value or importance." No one really knows why this dessert took on that name: Maybe it's because a variety of ingredients seem to be tossed in a bowl. Like its layered counterpart, the fool, it is a fun and whimsical dessert with a rich history that dates to the late 1500s. It evolved over the centuries and gained great fame, appearing everywhere from royal banquet tables to humble family dinners, and is a favorite Christmas dessert. Though its origin is unclear, the trifle is definitely special, sophisticated, and a joy to share.