Of all the British puddings with their whimsical names — the roly-poly, the spotted dick, the whim wham and the Eton mess — none is as popular on this side of the pond as a custardy, boozy, cream-topped trifle.
Flamboyant, fruity and exceedingly merry, trifles are a show-off dessert with a self-effacing name.
For all their fanciness, they’re also highly adaptable. As long as you have layers of cake, custard, some kind of fruit or jam (or both), and a fluffy cloud of cream on top, you can vary it as much as you like.
This said, there are, still, a few very loose rules to keep in mind for the best possible result.
The first is about the cake. The anchor of the trifle, the cake layer adds substance to all the ethereal creaminess covering it. But you don’t need to make it from scratch. Store-bought ladyfingers (also called boudoir biscuits) or sponge cake are time-honored choices. Poundcake and panettone work, too.
Second, you’ll want to consider the soak. Then, make sure the cake is well doused. Add the sherry or whatever liquid you’re using slowly, giving it a chance to soak in, then add more if you see any dry spots.
Although sweet sherry is the usual choice, Diana Henry, the London-based food writer and author of many cookbooks, including “From the Oven to the Table” (Mitchell Beazley, 2019), also recommends Madeira, Marsala, port and even whisky, bourbon and gin.
“Trifle without booze is just sweet,” she wrote in an email.
That said, using a zingy fruit juice paired with its fruit — say, orange juice layered with sugared segments of blood and navel oranges, or apple cider spiked with apple cider vinegar alongside poached or sautéed apples — would work gorgeously in a more temperate dessert.
While the cake doesn’t have to be made from scratch, the custard should be. It should also be thick enough to mound on your spoon, so it holds up amid the cream, fruit and cake. Flavor it with plenty of vanilla, citrus zest or spices, or use lemon curd or chocolate pudding instead.
Finally, festoon the top with almonds or amaretti for crunch, or glacéed or fresh fruit for color, or nothing at all for a more minimalist take. And save the leftovers for the days ahead. (It keeps for a few days covered in the fridge.)
As Ms. Henry contends, if you love all the ingredients you add to the bowl, you really can’t go wrong.
“With trifles,” she wrote, “you should be able to bend and break the rules.”