Indeed, outside of the UK, the knowledge of British cuisine is limited to full breakfast, including sausage, bacon and eggs, shepherd’s pie (called Hachis Parmentier in France) and fish & chips (that would be “fish and French fries” in the US!)
The British have also imported a number of recipes from their colonies and overseas territories, like Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands or Bermuda for example. But the cuisine of India is definitely the one that has marked British cuisine the most over the past 4 centuries. There are now more than 9400 Indian restaurants in the UK, with almost half of them in London and its vicinity. Chicken tikka masala is actually the most favored dish by the British!
My first visit to the UK was in the 80s as I stayed a couple times with a family in Bognor Regis, on the southern coast of England to study and practice my English during the summer. In the late 90s, I used to work for a California-based company. Their European headquarter was located in the London suburbs. Also, my brother and his family lived in London for 12 years in the 2000s. Although I visited London quite often, I always ended up eating Indian food over there.
The word trifle comes from the 14th century Anglo-French word trufle, which means fraud or trick, and let me tell you, it’s definitely more of a treat that a trick! In a nutshell, it is egg custard poured over sponge cake soaked in fruit and sherry and topped with whipped cream.
Buxton Pudding and Tipsy Hedgehog, a Victorian version with almonds used for the spines, are also famous variations of the same dessert. Tipsy Laird is the Scottish version in which the cake is soaked in Drambuie or Whisky.
Trifle is traditionally made with Savoy cake, usually stale, which allows the cake to absorb more of the liquid. Some recipes, like the one I am proposing, make use of Savoy biscuits called Savoiardi, the Italian version of ladyfinger biscuits.
There is not one recipe for trifle but thousands. Every country and region added its own touch. Food writers Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson wrote up the history of this dessert in 2001 in a book called Trifle!
A single dessert. Thousands of possibilities!
Despite the thousands of recipes for this sweet traditional dessert, there are still some common guidelines to follow:
Cake: you can use sponge cake, Savoiardi biscuits, Savoy cake, Madeira cake (named after Madeira wine)
Liquor: typically Sherry or Brandy, but also white wine or rum or liqueurs like Grand Marnier or Amaretto
Jelly: some people add jelly but this is optional. There is much debate about the use of jelly but we will try to stay away from the controversy today…
Fruits: fresh, pureed fruits or compote can be used.
Custard: homemade custard is used for festive occasions. Bird’s instant custard is a generally accepted alternative and has even become traditional in the UK. I happened to travel to Boston this week (after I made the trifle) and found some Bird’s custard in a British specialty shop. I will definitely try it out and post my impressions in the next few weeks.
Whipped cream: it can sometimes be enriched with beaten egg whites like in my recipe
Toppings: you can go crazy but the typical toppings include crushed Amaretti cookies, toasted nuts, candied fruits and shaved chocolate. I used famous French biscuits Gavottes and toasted almonds for my recipe.
Trifle bowl: this bowl has become the emblematic container of the traditional sweet British dessert. I got mine at Crate & Barrel.
I spent almost 2 weeks in Paris last month and I brought back a number of goodies from there. Among those goodies were a lot of French cheeses. And since my friends know me so well, I had to organize a cheesy party to celebrate me getting over the hill as I turned 41… although some would say I am already over the hill… On the menu were cheeses, artisan breads, salads and… this trifle!
This trifle was definitely a hit if you can judge by the fact that it was finished in less than 15 minutes… or maybe some of my friends who hate cheese could not wait for the dessert.
Either way, I can tell you that it was delicious. Sweet but not too sweet. Crunchy with the addition of the crushed Gavottes and toasted almonds. Festive with the heavy touch of Sherry and Brandy. Delicate and sophisticated with the Savoiardi. The berries gave the sour touch needed to make this dessert my new favorite dessert on 196 flavors so far.
I used to think British haute cuisine was an oxymoron… not anymore! Now let’s see how many enemies I can make with this statement 😉
- 20 Savoiardi biscuits (about)
- 4 tablespoons Sherry (or a mix of Sherry and Brandy)
- 4 cups berries e.g. strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries
- ½ cup sliced almonds , toasted
- ½ cup Gavottes , crushed
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon Brandy
- 3 egg whites
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 10 egg yolks
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon Sherry
- Heat the milk and heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat and bring almost to a boil. Remove from the heat.
- Beat the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer for about 5 minutes until pale and thick.
- Add the cornstarch. Beat on medium-low speed until combined.
- Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture.
- Pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, for about 5 minutes.
- Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl.
- Stir in the Sherry. Place plastic wrap directly on the custard and refrigerate for about 30 minutes until cold.
- Beat the heavy milk in the bowl of an electric mixer for a few minutes.
- Add the Brandy and continue to whip until stiff.
- Separately, beat the egg whites until reaching soft peak.
- Fold in beaten egg whites into the whipped cream.
- Thickly slice strawberries and set aside with the rest of the berries.
- Mix toasted almonds and crushed Gavottes in a bowl.
- Add the zest of 1 lemon to the almond mixture.
- Place Savoiardi biscuits at the bottom of the bowl.
- Sprinkle with Sherry.
- Top with a layer of berries and custard.
- Sprinkle toasted almonds and Gavottes mixture.
- Repeat with 1 or 2 layers of Savoiardi, berries, custard and almond mixture depending on the size of the trifle bowl.
- Top with whipped cream.
- Garnish with toasted almonds and a few whole berries.