Our Family’s Traditional English Trifle. Thank you, Auntie Ev

Traditional English TrifleIf Auntie Ev had known about wikipedia, I would think that she is the one who wrote the Trifle Wiki. Here's what it says:

Trifle is a dessert dish made from thick (or often solidified) custard, fruit, sponge cake, fruit juice or jelly, and whipped cream. These ingredients are usually arranged in layers. --Wikipedia.org

Of course, she would also have also included in the definition a splash or five of sweet dessert wine. In our family, that equals sherry. Cream sherry.  It's cheap. It's sweet. It's boozy. It reminds me of childhood Christmases.

Not that our Christmases were Boozy Bacchanalias where red nosed Friends of the Family forced Christmas cheer down the gullets of toddlers. That sounds like a deleted scene from A Christmas Carol, actually.  One that Ebenezer was forced to witness by the commanding bony finger of the scariest spirit of all: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  And that has absolutely no place in our tale, so let's just move along.

Traditional English TrifleRather, Auntie Ev baptized the layers of lemon pound cake with a healthy drizzle of cream sherry, the flavor of which goes spectacularly well with all the other elements in this particular trifle.

I have eaten other people's trifles. I've read a bunch of different ingredient lists calling for everything from cubed brownies to mandarin orange slices to kiwi to strawberries to Jell-o all bound by boxed pudding. But this trifle, Auntie Ev's trifle, is really the only trifle you need get to know.  I'm serious. The ingredients are simple and few, but the dessert itself is one of my favorite non-chocolate combinations ever.

While lots of trifles are Constructed of many repeating layers in tall, straight-sided, footed trifle bowls and are served by scooping out a portion and serving it in a bowl, Auntie Ev's trifle is traditionally constructed in a rather unassuming 9"x13" Pyrex baking dish.  There is no layer-jumbling scooping that occurs. Nope. Auntie Ev's trifle is slice-able and gets served in perfectly square pieces with a maraschino cherry plopped right on top of the whipped cream.  I have no idea whether this was Auntie Ev's refinement or if that's the way her mom made it before her, but it does look lovely on a plate, much more so than a big old scoop of multilayer-ed trifle that gets dumped in a bowl.

Traditional English TrifleAuntie Ev used to make her lemon pound cake for trifle, but the cake you choose to use is up to you.  Make your favorite or try a simple version of Van Halen pound cake. A frozen pound cake will even do. The sherry saves it.  Let's make some trifle, shall we?

5.0 from 2 reviews
Traditional English Trifle with Sherry, Jam and Custard
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: English
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 10-12
There is no rule that says you can't make these in individual glasses. I did this year along with a small-ish 7"x11" Pyrex baking dish. The custard is just my good old reliable scale-able vanilla pudding made extra silky by leaving out the butter.
What You Need
For the Custard
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 4 Tablespoons corn starch (or similar)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup of sugar (you may need a little more--I just do it to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon salt (again, to taste. You might want a bit more or less, just please don't leave it out)
  • 4 teaspoons vanilla extract
Items for Assembly
  • your choice of pound cake
  • cream sherry
  • raspberry jam (homemade or store-bought. Do get a good quality jam)
  • about ¾-1 cup heavy cream, whipped to medium-stiff peaks with a pinch of salt, a splash of vanilla and a couple of tablespoons of sugar
What To Do
For the Custard
  1. I would hold off making the custard until you have the rest of the layers constructed.
  2. Place the vanilla in a large bowl. Set a fine mesh strainer over the top and set aside.
  3. In a large sauce pan, combine the milk, corn starch, yolks, sugar and salt.
  4. Over medium to medium-high heat, bring this to a boil, whisking constantly.
  5. Before it gets too hot, give it a taste and see if you need to add a bit more sugar and/or salt for your taste.
  6. Once the custard comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook another 30-45 seconds. Continue to whisk madly.
  7. Remove the pan from the heat and strain the custard into the bowl with the vanilla. You may need to use your spatula to force it all through.
  8. Stir the custard and vanilla together thoroughly.
To Assemble
  1. Cut rectangles of pound cake about ½" thick and fit them in the bottom of a 9"x13" glass baking dish. It's okay to leave a little space between the slices at the edges of the pan, but the rest of the slices should pretty much be touching.
  2. Even drizzle as much or as little sherry over the layers as you like. This is entirely dependent on who you're feeding, so use your good judgement. I usually use about ¼-1/3 cup per layer. I don't measure either. I just stick my thumb over the mouth of the bottle and shake on as much as seems Prudent.
  3. Evenly spread on a layer of raspberry jam about ⅛"-3/16" thick.
  4. Add another layer of pound cake.
  5. Sprinkle with more sherry.
  6. Spread on another layer of jam.
  7. Pour the custard evenly over the top of the trifle, making sure that it runs down into any gaps between the cake and the sides of the pan. I usually stick a knife in in a few places to allow the custard to spread. You want about a ½" layer of custard, so if you seem to have a bit extra, save it for yourself and don't tell anyone.
  8. You should still have about ½" of space between the top of the custard and the top of the pan. This is where you'll spread your whipped cream.
  9. Cover the trifle with plastic wrap (don't worry about pressing it to the surface of the custard) and chill thoroughly.
  10. Once chilled, spread the whipped cream evenly over the top of the trifle.
  11. Serve in whatever size slices you'd like, and place a completely optional maraschino cherry in the very center of each slice before serving.

I even served a version of this trifle at the restaurant. For that, we used lemon sponge cake, a sherry soaking syrup, house-made raspberry jam, vanilla pastry cream and whipped creme fraiche. I served it with a lemon sabayon and a raspberry coulis. It was rather a hit. But even all gussied up, at its heart, it was always Auntie Ev's trifle.

Traditional English TrifleAnd I think that's what makes it taste so good.

Thank you so much for reading, and if I don't see you again before Thanksgiving, I wish you the very best and tons for which to be thankful.

Have a lovely day.








  1. Tracey@Tangled Noodle says

    Sweet, creamy AND boozy? That’s my kind of dessert! Thanks to you and Auntie Ev, no holiday dinner should ever be without such a wonderful finish. 😎

  2. says

    This sounds lovely! At my house a trifle is always the solution to a kitchen screw-up. YOu know, if the cake comes out in pieces instead of in lovely sheets? That’s when I scour the fridge for goodies to layer with the broken pieces. I never make it the same way twice and I’ve never had a clunker yet. However, I really like the idea of making a well-planned trifle on “purpose”!

    • says

      Sherry! I know what you mean. I’ve made trifles out of oopsies, too! lol There’s something perversely fun about setting out to gather ingredients for A Specific Trifle. I wonder if that’s how this trifle evolved: Auntie Ev’s mom made many oops trifles and finally hit upon this combo and never looked back. I do hope you give this one a try next time you end up with chunks of cake; I think you’ll really like it! 🙂

  3. Bronwyn says

    Hmm. Trifle here in New Zealand is made with sponge cake, which is a completely different animal to pound cake. The best way to describe it to an American is possibly Angel Food Cake with yolks. Soaks up a LOT of sherry and in no way can be sliced once soaked. Not sponge cake = not trifle. You know the Italian for trifle translates to “English Soup”?

    Like this (cornflour is what you would call corn starch).

    • says

      Thanks so much for your comment. I am well aware of the differences between sponge cake and pound cake. The picture of the nice slice of trifle you see in the post was made with pound cake. Of course, it is a question of the amount of sherry (or other liquid) you use to soak. When I made this with sponge cake at the restaurant, I used a sherry soaking syrup as noted in the post. I specify no more than maybe 1/3 cup of sherry for an entire trifle when made with pound cake.

      I am not a fan of soupy desserts, either.

  4. says

    So pretty! And I like that you show us two ways to layer and serve it. It really is such a special, festive dessert with all the layers and the different flavors and textures. Perfect.

    • says

      I love this dessert so much, whether it’s made with Sara Lee pound cake and boxed pudding or homemade pound cake and pastry cream. My favorite combination, Jamie! There’s something about the sherry with the raspberry jam. Mmmm–so good! =)

  5. says

    Auntie Ev was a gem, and this recipe with its simplicity sparkles. I seem to be gravitating towards humble dishes lately, the ones with few ingredients which deliver big time. And her “baptizing” technique warranted a joyful smile! Thank you for sharing this, and the spirit of your loved one.

    • says

      Baptize liberally, Brooks! There is definitely something to be said for simple and flavorful. I love this trifle so much; I do hope you make it sometime. It would make me so happy to know it graced the Walkers’ table! xoxo

  6. Joan says

    This version of a trifle sounds very interesting. Do you happen to know how many frozen poundcakes ( sara lee ) I’d need to cover the 9X13 dish? I guess I can figure it out but thought you might know already.

    • says

      Hi Joan. Very good question. When I use Sara Lee, I buy two family-sized cakes. It usually takes about 1 1/4. At a guess, I’d say you’ll be okay with 2 regular-sized ones although I like to err on the side of caution and have extra to dip in sherry, spread with jam and eat myself! =) I do hope you enjoy this trifle. It really is one of my favorite desserts in the world!

  7. says

    I usually make individual trifles, but on those occasions when I don’t want to go to such bother this is perfect. The big straight-sided trifle bowl looks so pretty until the first couple servings are taken out, then it looks a mess!

    • says

      Exactly! How can something so delicious and so beautiful end up looking like a train wreck after one or two servings?! Feel free to adopt Auntie Ev’s layered approach with your favorite trifle, or try our family’s. It really is my favorite!


Speak Your Mind

Rate this recipe: