‘What about the jelly!’ my boyfriend shrieks when he finds me in the kitchen, elbows deep in custard. I shake my head firmly. He gives me a withering look and turns on his heel. Who knew a trifle could prove so controversial?
But Sam is not the only one. People have argued over trifle for centuries, and it certainly doesn’t end with the jelly. Do you use sherry or sweet wine? Sprinkles or silver balls? Syllabub, blancmange, cream or custard? Trifle is like bolognese or scrambled eggs: everyone has an immovable belief that their way is the one true way.
This year I’m spending Christmas with Sam’s family for the first time. I’m delighted, but nervous. Because, of course, the traditions will be their traditions, not mine. The stockings will be their stockings. The trifle will be their trifle — and it will probably involve jelly. I respect jelly; really, I do. I understand that it provides structural support. I’ve heard all the arguments. But let me be clear: jelly has no place in my trifle. This lady is not for wobbling.
Trifle dates back to the 16th century, if not earlier; the first recipe we’d recognise is Hannah Glasse’s from 1747. It contained Naples biscuits soaked in wine, layered with custard and topped with syllabub and cream (and, as I like to point out to Sam, no jelly).
Since its inception, trifle’s popularity hasn’t waned. Isabella Beeton, in her 1861 classic Household Management, gave no fewer than four recipes. There have been many pretenders to the throne over the years: flummeries, tipsy puddings, hedgehog cakes, and even the humble whim-wham. But while they’ve all fallen by the wayside, the trifle stands proud.
The Italians call it zuppa inglese (English soup) which I love. A pell-mell of custard, sponge cake, jam, miscellaneous booze and (whisper it) jelly, all mixed together in a big bowl. An English export to be proud of.
My recipe doesn’t stray too far from Hannah Glasse’s classic quartet of sponge, booze, custard and cream. French almond cake, laced with amaretto, forms the base. It’s followed by jam — raspberry or, if I have it, damson — tinned peaches, and a very thick layer of very thick nutmeg custard. Then whipped cream, spiked with more amaretto, and broken amaretti biscuits. It doesn’t beat you around the head with alcohol, but you know it’s there. The nutmeg custard is reminiscent of eggnog: velvet-smooth, and oh-so-Christmassy. And don’t feel guilty about using tinned peaches: Fortnum & Mason have been known to do the same.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you put in too much booze, forget the cream or bury the whole thing under an avalanche of hundreds and thousands. Or even add a layer of jelly. It will still be celebratory, it will still be good, it will still be loved. Even if it’s not quite the way it should be done. It’s a bit like Christmas, I suppose.
For the sponge:
200g caster sugar
2 tsp almond extract
50g self-raising flour
1 tsp salt
120g ground almonds
For the custard:
150ml double cream
2 tsp grated nutmeg
4 egg yolks
30g caster sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
For the trifle:
100g raspberry or damson jam
400ml double cream
2 tbsp caster sugar
6 amaretti biscuits
1. Preheat oven to 160°C and line a 20cm x 30cm rectangular tin with baking paper. Cream together the sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, whisking well. After the first two, add in half the flour and mix thoroughly. Whisk in the other two eggs, and add the rest of the flour. Mix in the almond extract, salt, and ground almonds. Add the milk. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 40 minutes, covering with foil after 25 minutes. Leave to cool.
2. Heat the milk, cream and nutmeg gently in a saucepan until steaming. Cool for five minutes. In a large bowl, whisk the yolks and sugar until the mixture falls from the whisk in ribbons. Add the cornflour and whisk again. Pour the hot milk and cream over the egg mixture, whisking all the time. Return to the stove and heat very gently without boiling. Stir constantly until thick and smooth. Place clingfilm against the surface of the custard to stop a skin forming. Refrigerate until cold.
3. Cut 5cm circles of sponge using the rim of a glass and arrange in a layer in the trifle bowl. Drizzle with 50ml of the amaretto. Warm the jam in a small pan to loosen it, and spread across the sponge. Layer with peach slices. Dollop the nutmeg custard on top. Add the remaining 50ml of amaretto and 2 tablespoons of caster sugar to 400ml double cream and whisk to stiff peaks. Spoon this onto the custard, and scatter with crushed amaretti biscuits. Refrigerate until ready to serve.