When I was young, trifle was a regular staple party food. First, you would place some tinned fruit in the bottom of a bowl. If this was a fancy trifle, you might also add some dry, cardboardy sponge fingers and drown them in sherry. Next, you’d take a block of concentrated fruit jelly, dissolve it in warm water, pour over the fruit and leave to set. Then, take Bird’s custard powder, mix it with hot milk and pour that over the jelly. Finally, top with whipped cream – fancy trifles would have proper whipping cream here, a more mundane one might use a chemical concoction known as “Dream Topping”, or perhaps something sprayed out of a can. Finally, the last embellishment would be a generous measure of multi-coloured sugar sprinkles on the top. When you dug the spoon in to serve this trifle, the layers would be firm and glistening, and the trifle would wobble precariously as transferred it to the bowl. Each layer would be soft, but slightly rubbery and, if truth be told, rather bland and flavourless. Except the sherry-soaked sponge – people often went overboard on that and would use rather more sherry than it’s healthy for a single dessert to contain.
So, that’s the image of trifle that immediately pops into most people’s minds. Sadly, I think it’s tainted most people’s view of trifle, who now think of it as an ever-present, but not very exciting end to a meal. It doesn’t have to be like that though. Well-made trifle is utterly delicious. The trouble is, like most good things, it takes time and care to make. The Prawn Cocktail Years recipe is one certainly worth taking time and care with.
I’ve made this recipe many times over the years – it’s a regular choice as our Boxing Day pudding. The results are always delicious, but each year I dread making it. The reason? Custard. I love custard. I especially love this particular custard. But will it set? Well, who knows? With custards, there’s a very fine line between setting and curdling. If you don’t cook it enough, it remains liquid and never sets. If you overcook it, you wind up with scrambled eggs. The perfect consistency for custard in a trifle is undoubtedly a matter of personal opinion, but I think it should be soft – just firm enough to hold itself together as each portion is spooned into the bowl, but soft enough to then melt into the other layers as you eat.
Well, let’s put custardy fears aside for the moment. On with the trifle. First, amaretti biscuits are placed in the bottom of a bowl, and a mixture of sherry and cognac poured onto them. Next, a layer of rasberry jam – warmed slightly, to make it easier to pour over the biscuit base.
Now we come to the hard bit, the custard. First, scald some milk and cream in a pan with a vanilla pod, and leave to infuse for a little while. Then beat eggs and yolks in a bowl with a little sugar, and then strain the vanilla milk into the eggs and beat until well mixed. Return the custard to the pan and heat gently. Now, this is a delicate operation – the difference between undercooked and runny and overcooked and curdled is just a few degrees. I heated the mixture, stirring it constantly until it coated the back of the spoon. I checked the temperature – it was 77˚C. The irreversible descent into scrambled egg starts at 80˚C, so it was time to stop. Peering closely, I could see some tell-tale grains starting form – there’s probably a hot spot in the base of the pan somewhere. I whisked the custard quickly and plunged the base of the pan into cold water to stop the cooking.
So, pour the custard over the jam and biscuits, and then leave to cool. Once cool enough, put in the fridge overnight.
Finally, just before serving, whip some cream with a little icing sugar and add on top of the custard. Top with silver sugar balls and slices of anglica.
The verdict: it was delicious. Smooth and creamy, with a good balance of flavours. This is how a trifle should be. The custard? It was too runny. It was close, but just couldn’t quite hold itself together. Thinking about it more, I now suspect I simply need more egg yolks in there to increase the thickening. The next time I make this, I shall try that.
Trifle. Who could ever say no? Well, I could say no to the things sold in supermarkets that pretend to be trifle, but I love a homemade one. I really like the jelly and fruit kind made with birds custard too, but a proper trifle is a glory to eat and that’s what Dave made for Boxing Day
It is difficult to get the custard to set, being eggs and cream only, and this one was a little runny, but it only matters aesthetically, the flavour is to die for regardless of consistency.
It starts with the field of slightly sweetened whipped cream with the shiny silver balls and angelica, and I’m transported. Beneath the cream lies the beautiful, rich, slightly grainy custard. I think invalids should be fed this stuff. And then the sweet explosion of fruity jam and the almond biscuits soaked in something wonderful. The whole mouth sensation is delightful. And this pudding packs a strong punch.
We are living in an age when desserts have to be terribly sweet and overly fancy to appeal. We have forgotten the sheer joy of trifle.
I think Dave just needs to practice more – to get the custard right of course.
I’ve always used a little corn flour in my custard, is that cheating?!
Yup, that’s cheating 🙂
Ah, trifle! It conjures for me the carefree days of a perfect Christmas with my family. A dish of your trifle, Dave, would be delightful!
Regarding the custard, I’ve always found Delia’s custard recipe to be more or less foolproof for most needs. She puts a little cornflour in hers to help it stiffen – now I’m not sure if you’d agree with that.
As I just said to Guy in the above comment, that’s definitely cheating. A pure custard from just eggs and milk is a thing of beauty…
Does a little cornflour have a noticeable effect on the taste or texture of the custard? If not, I think you’d have to be a dedicated purist to call it cheating!
Yup, I’m a dedicated purist 🙂 But also, the point of this blog is to follow the recipes in the book as closely as possible, and the recipe here does not include cornflour.
It’s a long time since I added cornflour to a custard, but I expect that so long as you weren’t too heavy-handed with it, it wouldn’t alter the taste too much. Something like carrageenan might well give better results though.
Yay, the prawn cocktail years are back! Looking forward to the next update 😀