Make a better trifle

Trifle is a cornerstone dish of Christmases all over the world. After all, it's hard to resist the layers of sponge, custard, fruit, jelly and, of course, booze. But if you find this behemoth of a dessert intimidating, don't worry! We've got just the guide to get you living your best #triflelife. 

The sponge

Because trifle has so many wet components - jelly, fruit, booze, custard - it’s incredibly important that there’s an absorbent skeleton underneath to provide structural integrity.

The traditional sponge has been a classic for a reason - the soft, open crumb allows each bite to melt in your mouth, without the fragility of the sponge finger (another popular choice).

If you’re planning to load your trifle up with liquid - we all know that the booze hand can get a bit out of control - then definitely aim for something more substantial. The trad choice is a buttercake or Madeira cake instead of a sponge. 

For something left of field, we advocate: banana bread, brownies, and panettone, and if you’re feeling adventurous, why not try a Japanese castella, a Romanian sweet bread, or even lamingtons, instead?

Romanian sponge cake (cozonac)

Traditionally made at Easter, also known in Bulgaria as kozunak, this sweet brioche-like loaf (it’s not really a sponge cake at all!) is similar to those of Italy, Austria and Poland. 

Upside-down caramel banana bread

Move over regular, unadorned banana bread, this one’s a winner! Perfect if you have a crowd coming for weekend brunch. And the best part? This cake's spectacular looks belie how darned quick it is to rustle up. 

Three milks cake (pastel de tres leches)

Immensely well-loved in Latin America, a recipe for this wonderfully milky cake appeared on the label of Nestle’s sweetened condensed milk cans in the 1940s, possible explaining why its popularity has spread so widely in this part of the world.    

Castella cake (kasutera)

A specialty of the Nagasaki area, this wonderfully simple, honey-scented sponge cake was originally introduced by the Portuguese merchants in the 16th century, with its name originating from Pão de Castela meaning "bread from Castile".

The fruit

This should be where the bulk of your sweetness is coming from.

Yes, there is no lack of added sugar - it is a dessert after all - but the secret to preventing a saccharine disaster is to draw from the freshness of seasonal fruit.

If you like, you can enhance the fruit further by poaching it, macerating it, or infusing it with different flavours.

Poached quince and winter fruit in spiced wine

This dessert defines an exact moment in the season – the end of autumn and the beginning of winter – and I prepare it as soon as the first quince are ripe.

Classic baked custard with macerated prunes

The secret to a silky smooth baked custard is the balance of eggs to milk and cream and gentle baking. This velvety one is teamed with macerated prunes for a memorable dessert.

Fruit in pandan-infused palm sugar syrup

The ginger and pandan-infused syrup combined with coconut jelly lend a Thai influence to this tropical fruit salad. 

Zabaglione with macerated raspberries

Macerate the raspberries a day ahead. This dessert can be served warm or cold. 

Cumquat-scented trifle

This trifle is layered like a tiramisu, with a cumquat-scented ricotta replacing the cream component.  

The booze

There’s usually an element of booze in classic trifle recipes - port and sherry are very popular - but this serves to moisten and flavour the sponge, rather than to actually get the diner absolutely toasted.

With that in mind, why not try different liquids - rosewater can provide floral notes to a Middle Eastern themed trifle, a gin syrup for a gin and tonic trifle, or even different unsweetened teas to balance out the other elements.

Bonus points: using non-alcoholic liquids means the younger members of the family can enjoy this treat too! 

Ricotta gulab jamun with saffron syrup

These Indian doughnuts, known as gulab jamun, are soaked in a sugar syrup until they double in size. 

Quince and lemon myrtle syrup cake

Dense with lemon myrtle-scented quince and soaked with the poaching syrup, this cake is just as wonderful served warm as a dessert or for afternoon tea. 

Ume juice

Like her pet dog Kipple, Natsuko’s a keen baker and often pairs her fresh treats with a drink, in this case, ume juice made from preserved Japanese or regular plums.

Yoghurt citrus cake with gin syrup

I adore lemon and lime with gin, hence any excuse to knock up this cake. If it’s going to be eaten by the kids, use a few juniper berries in the syrup instead of the gin, and just strain them out before pouring over the cake.

Turkish delight-filled doughnuts with rosewater and honey syrup

The jelly

Nope, I don’t want to hear about how jelly is for children. It’s historical, and if it’s good enough for Jamie Oliver, Maggie Beer and Gordon Ramsay, then it’s good enough for us. 

Whether jelly conjures up images of fancy or fear for you, you cannot deny that it adds another layer of texture and contrast to this majestic bowl of dessert.

Depending on what flavour you choose, it may be the gateway to your dessert adulthood. Try fruity flavours like lychee, blood plum, and mango, or get fancy with Champagne, marsala or pedro ximenéz jellies. Whatever the case may be, never turn your nose up at another way to add one more voice to this festive choir.

Set passionfruit cream with elderflower jelly

The slight tart flavour of the passionfruit is a great foil to the rich creaminess, with the elderflower adding an almost-crisp flavour and spritz from the sneaky prosecco that’s added.

Green gooseberry jelly cheesecake with red gooseberry compote

The tartness of a gooseberry is a strange concept for a Frenchman but the challenge of trying to conquer its sourness and create flavoursome dishes from it was attractive. 

Blood plum and blackberry jelly with vanilla cream

The secret, I find, is to use real fruit juice as the base, and to use only enough gelatine to just set the jelly, so it dissolves as soon as it hits your mouth.

Pedro Ximenez jelly with chocolate and caramel layers

With dulce de leche cream, toasted almonds, chocolate custard, shortbread and a Spanish sherry jelly, we’re bringing sexy back to the festive trifle.

Champagne jelly with red fruits

French pâtissier Pierrick Boyer prepares a delicate champagne gelée with fresh berries.

The custard

Made with eggs, milk (or cream) and sugar, the custard’s role in a trifle is to provide a velvety, rich blanket to bring the other elements together. Whether you like it soft or firm, the only thing custard cannot be is watery. So why stop at a traditional custard? Try baked custards, semolina custards, panna cottas or even a bavarois!

Pandan custard

Forget custard powder. Packing a beautiful vibrant green, this Thai dessert is so easy. 

Mango custard vanilla slice

SBS Food and Black Star Pastry have teamed up to pop a twist on an Aussie classic. Tugging at those summer strings is this mango and passionfruit version. #BringBackTheClassics

Muhalbiyah with rosewater

There was a food stand close to my childhood home that sold nothing but muhalbiyah, or milk pudding. We kids loved the sugar rush we’d get from the cheap and tacky syrup with its artificial colouring, while the adults had a version made with grenadine syrup. 

Baked pumpkin custard with honey and pepitas

This is a very easy custard recipe that gives a beautiful pale orange-coloured dessert redolent with spices. 


The crunch

Maybe it’s not traditional, but in the name of contrast and texture, you might consider a layer of crunch. Macarons are a popular choice, but you can use a wide range of crumbled/crushed biscuits, gingerbread, brittle, pralines, meringues … and if you’re feeling particularly creative, candied bacon. Yes, meat in your trifle. Rachel Green would be proud.

Frozen lychee and coconut cream with sesame praline

This is an easy frozen dessert for summer that needs no ice cream machine or churning. 

Speculaas (Dutch spiced cookies)

Like little pieces of art, these deliciously buttery Dutch spice biscuits are made using a traditional springerle mould, or you can improvise with our clever cheat's tip.

Traditional gingerbread men

A classic your kids will love decorating. The dough is soft and pliable, making for easy rolling.

Banoffee trifle with candied bacon

This layered dessert of vanilla custard, candied bacon, crushed shortbread cookies, fried bananas, toffee caramel, and chocolate ganache looks awesome in a glass dish. 

Danish macaroons (makroner)

These macaroons are commonly crumbled and used in the traditional Danish Lagkage (layer cake), a traditional Danish birthday cake.

Layers, layers, layers - because gravity is your friend

Sure, there have been trifles made with a single layer of each, but if you’re using particularly juicy fruit, then you might want to consider layering your trifle up like a lasagne.

Think about it this way - all the excess moisture is going to travel downwards and pool in the bottom of the dish, possibly making your base layer of sponge soggy.

If you’re planning to use a bounty of summer fruit and a soft custard on your trifle, then layers of sponge in the middle sections of the trifle would help prevent your holiday dessert from becoming a spectacular pile of mush. 

Just remember to start with a layer of sponge and end with a layer of softly whipped cream - everything else in between is your creative oyster world.

Time to dig in! All the recipes.

Ultimately, a good trifle is all about balance. With so many elements involved, it can be so easy to get carried away with one thing and forget another. If you’re unsure if flavours would go well together, it’s always a good idea to make small batches ahead of time and test it out to see if you like it. 

(Tip: If you have a really picky bunch of eaters, why not make dessert time a trifle party instead? Have all the elements laid out on a table with single-serve glasses, and everyone can assemble their own.)

As with any party cooking, embrace your creativity! And if you don’t know where to start, why not try these creative trifle recipes to get you inspired:

Turkish delight trifle

Shaking up this traditional English dessert are flavours from Turkey and Australia - say goodbye to your grandma's recipe. #BringBackTheClassics

Minted raspberry brownie trifles

These trifles are a complete contradiction in terms when it comes to eating them – they are rich yet refreshing, sweet yet tart, indulgent yet light – and that’s what makes them so good. 

Triple ginger trifle

Ginger, lemon and caramel is an unexpected combination, but in this updated version of a much-loved classic it is completely blissful, and far from conservative!

Banana bread, raspberry and ricotta trifle

Leftover banana bread floating about? Just carve it up into little pieces and you’re halfway toward making this fantastic dessert.