Gather: No Trifling Matter

The holidays are over, yet still there are tins and festive bags of cookies. Leftover cake demands to be eaten. You’ve received several jars of other people’s delicious jams. There are stacks upon stacks of wild berries in the freezer. You know what you need to do? You need to have one last extravagant holiday blowout.

You need to make a trifle—that luscious, layered concoction of cake or cookies, fruit, custard, jam and whipped cream invented by the British and adored by everyone else.

Trifle emerged in Britain sometime in the 18th century, became the beloved standard for dessert in the Victorian era and quickly travelled around the world. The Italians call it Zuppa Inglese, while the German or Austrian version is known as punschtorte. The Scots have their own interpretation, the Tipsy Laird, made with Drambuie or whisky.

Which reminds me of an important ingredient—sherry. You can also use whisky, bourbon or, if you’re sharing with children, orange juice (though you can always make two versions, one for the kids, one for the adults).

The word “trifle” is said to derive from the Old French word truflei. It originally referred to a false tale, foolishness or a thing of no consequence. But there is nothing false or inconsequential about a trifle. It is an omnibus, a portmanteau, a giant treasury with room for every delicious item you, your pantry and your imagination can come up with.

Yield: 10

Post-Holiday Trifle


Custard Layer

  • 4 cups milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp flavouring. Choose from vanilla, almond extract, Amaretto, sherry, whisky, bourbon or lemon juice

Cake or Cookie Layer

  • 1/3 cup sherry or orange juice
  • Enough cake or cookies to cover the bottom of your bowl with a 1 1/2-inch layer. It’s hard to be precise, but say one-quarter of a 9-inch cake or 12 shortbread cookies.

Fresh, Frozen or Canned Fruit Layer

  • 2 cups fresh or frozen strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches or nectarines.

Jam Layer

  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup low-bush cranberry, cloudberry, raspberry or strawberry jam

Whipped Cream Layer

  • 2 cups 35% cream
  • 1/4 cup icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tbsp sherry


  • 1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds


Custard Layer

  1. Heat milk slowly in a medium-sized pot over medium-low heat until steam rises, about 7 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, beat eggs until lemon-coloured in a heatproof bowl. Beat in sugar, cornstarch and flavouring.
  3. Pour hot milk in a slow and steady stream into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Once all the milk is incorporated, pour the whole mixture back into the pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon, about 10 minutes. You’ll notice the custard thickening as you stir.
  4. If  the custard curdles, pour it through a strainer into a bowl and whisk vigorously for a few minutes. It should come together. Cool to room temperature before adding it to the trifle.

Whipped Cream Layer

  1. Whisk the cream until soft peaks form. Slowly add icing sugar, whisking constantly, followed by the sherry. Chill until you’re ready to spread it over the trifle.


  1. If using cake, break or slice the cake into smaller pieces and fit them into the bowl. Don’t worry if there are a few small gaps. The custard will trickle down and fill them. Drizzle sherry or orange juice over top. If using cookies, dip both sides of each cookie in the sherry or orange juice and fit them into the bowl, breaking them in half if necessary.
  2. Arrange the fruit over top of the cake or cookies.
  3. Pour a thick coating of custard over the fruit layer.
  4. Spread the jam in an even layer over top of the custard.
  5. Spread a thick layer of whipped cream over the jam.
  6. Sprinkle the top with toasted, sliced almonds. Chill for a couple of hours before serving.

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