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How To Turn a Cake Into a Trifle

Southern Living logo Southern Living 9/1/2020 Sheri Castle
a plate of food on a table: Antonis Achilleos; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall © Provided by Southern Living Antonis Achilleos; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall

A trifle might be the easiest fancy dessert around. They look impressive, but nothing about a trifle is fussy or difficult. They’re little more than bits of cake drizzled with something syrupy and layered with something creamy in a pretty glass bowl that shows off our handiwork. We know a dish is beloved when it warrants its own serving vessel. In lieu of a dedicated trifle bowl, however, any deep-sided, see-through bowl will do, from as small as canning jars or highball glasses (for individual servings) all the way up to punch bowls (for a crowd.)

Trifles originated in England more than two hundred years ago. The original formula called for leftover sponge cake soaked in sherry alternating with thick layers of creamy boiled custard and whipped cream. Early recipe names such as Tipsy Parson, Tipsy Squire, and Tipsy Pudding suggest that traditional trifles didn’t skimp on the sherry. Contemporary trifles don’t have to be so boozy and give us creative leeway in the layers.

Instead of homemade sponge cake, we can bake or buy a simple unfrosted cake, something tender enough to soften a little in the cream and absorb some of the sherry, but not so flimsy that it will dissolve or turn mushy. When in doubt, use pound cake, perhaps one that didn’t turn neatly out of the baking pan. A trifle is a brilliant save when we need to recast an otherwise delicious cake that doesn’t look its best. Trifle also gives a second chance to leftover cake, even when it’s a little stale. All it takes to make a cake trifle-ready is to cut it into cubes or strips, or coarsely crumble it into bite-size pieces.

a plate of food on a table: Yesterday's leftover cake is today's impressive dessert. © Antonis Achilleos; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall Yesterday's leftover cake is today's impressive dessert.

Video: What Is Bread Pudding—And What Kind of Bread Should You Use? (My Recipes)

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Classic trifle recipes tell us to sprinkle the cake pieces with sherry, but it’s fine to substitute something else that flavors and moistens the cake, such as a drizzle of another sweet wine, liqueur, or flavored syrups used in coffee-shop drinks. A few spoonsful of melted jelly, loose preserves, or soft citrus curd would work well, as would ripe, fragrant fruit (tossed with a little sugar to draw their juices, if needed.) Berries, peaches, or any fruit that would make great shortcake will shine in a trifle.

The gold standard for a traditional trifle’s creamy layer is rich, silky, homemade custard or pastry cream, although anything pudding-like works fine, so long as it’s not so thick or stiff that it cannot nestle into the cake layers. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be so thin that it runs down the side of the bowl and pools in the bottom. Each layer in a trifle should show and look nice in the glass bowl.

Many trifle recipes suggest equal portions of cake, custard, and cream, but that’s no longer a hard and fast rule, so long as the flavors and textures are balanced. When served, each layer should hold its own, yet meld with the other layers to the betterment of all.

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