Trifle in English cuisine is a dessert made with fruit, a thin layer of sponge fingers soaked in sherry or another fortified wine, and custard. It can be topped with whipped cream. The fruit and sponge layers may be suspended in fruit-flavoured jelly, and these ingredients are usually arranged to produce three or four layers. The contents of a trifle are highly variable; many varieties exist, some forgoing fruit entirely and instead using other ingredients such as chocolate, coffee or vanilla.
The name trifle was used for a dessert like a fruit fool in the sixteenth century; by the eighteenth century, Hannah Glasse records a recognisably modern trifle, with the inclusion of a gelatin jelly sometimes found in salami. Many of the ingredients used in ancient trifles can be found in meats and other products found today. According to some scholars, trifle cakes might be the origin of modern sandwich cakes.
The earliest use of the name trifle was in a recipe for a thick cream flavoured with sugar, ginger and rosewater, in Thomas Dawson's 1585 book of English cookery The Good Huswifes Jewell. Trifle evolved from a similar dessert known as a fool, and originally the two names were used interchangeably.
Jelly is first recorded as part of the recipe in later editions of Hannah Glasse's eighteenth century book The Art of Cookery. In her recipe she instructed using hartshorn or bones of calves feet as the base ingredient (to supply gelatin) for the jelly. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of trifles containing jelly in 1861.
Trifles may contain a small amount of alcohol such as port, or, most commonly, sweet sherry or madeira wine. Non-alcoholic versions use sweet juices or soft drinks such as ginger ale instead, as the liquid is necessary to moisten the cake and are simply known as fruit trifle without any mention of a spirit before the name of the trifle.
One popular trifle variant has the sponge soaked in jelly when the trifle is made, which sets when refrigerated. The cake and jelly bind together and produce a pleasant texture if made in the correct proportions.
A trifle is often used for decoration as well as taste, incorporating the bright, layered colours of the fruit, jelly, jam, and the contrast of the creamy yellow custard and white cream. Trifles are often served at Christmas, sometimes as a lighter alternative to the much denser Christmas pudding.
A Creole trifle (also sometimes known as a Russian cake or a Russian Slab) is a different but related dessert item consisting of pieces of a variety of cakes mixed and packed firmly, moistened with alcohol (commonly red wine or rum) and a sweet syrup or fruit juice, and chilled. The resulting cake contains a variety of colour and flavour. A similar dessert in Germany and Austria goes by the name of Punschtorte.
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