Trifle is a dessert dish made from thick (or often solidified) custard, fruit, sponge cake, fruit juice or gelatin, and whipped cream. These ingredients are usually arranged in layers with fruit and sponge on the bottom, and custard and cream on top.
The earliest known use of the name trifle was for a thick cream flavoured with sugar, ginger and rosewater, the recipe for which was published in England, 1596, in a book called "The good huswife's Jewell" by Thomas Dawson. It wasn't until sixty years later when milk was added and the custard was poured over alcohol soaked bread.
Research indicates it evolved from a similar dessert known as a fool or foole, and originally the two names were used interchangeably.
While some people consider the inclusion of gelatin to be a recent variation, the earliest known recipe to include jelly dates from 1747, and the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of trifles containing jelly in 1861.
Some trifles contain a small amount of alcohol such as port, or, most commonly, sweet sherry or madeira wine. Non-alcoholic versions may use sweet juices or soft drinks such as ginger ale instead, as the liquid is necessary to moisten the cake layers.
One popular trifle variant has the sponge soaked in jelly (liquid-gelatin dessert) when the trifle is made, which sets when refrigerated. The egg and jelly bind together and produce a pleasant texture if made in the correct proportions.
Traditional trifles do not contain jelly . The Scots have a similar dish to trifle, Tipsy Laird, made with Drambuie or whisky. In the Southern US, a variant of trifle is known as tipsy cake.
A trifle is often used for decoration as well as taste, incorporating the bright, layered colours of the fruit, jelly, egg custard, and the contrast of the cream.
Trifles are often served at Christmas time, sometimes as a lighter alternative to the much denser Christmas pudding.
A Creole trifle (also sometimes known as a 'Russian cake') is a different but related dessert item consisting of pieces of a variety of cakes mixed together 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. Bakeries in New Orleans have been known to produce such cakes out of their leftover or imperfect baked goods.
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