Traditional English Trifle

My Mother always made a trifle at Christmas; a pack of trifle sponges, a tin of Del Monte fruit cocktail, custard made with Bird’s custard powder, lashings of whipped cream and a good soaking of sweet Sherry. “What no jelly?” I hear you cry! Everyone’s family had a different take on the English classic and I am reminded of my turning point when I was served a trifle made with fresh homemade custard and fresh fruit instead of tinned.

If you look up recipes for trifle they vary enormously and even the most famous of top cooks take no shame in recommending ready-made trifle sponges and using fresh custard from the supermarket chiller cabinet.

If you want the full experience, here is my recipe for a Traditional English Trifle (with a little inspiration from Delia Smith recipes). If you love trifle it really is worth all the effort!

Serves 8-10

Madeira Cake Ingredients:

225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
175g soft butter
110g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2–3 tbsp milk

Custard Ingredients:

425ml double cream
4 large egg yolks
25g golden caster sugar
2 tsp cornflour
1 tsp vanilla extract

Filling and Topping Ingredients:

150ml sweet Sherry
raspberry jam
300g frozen raspberries (defrosted)
325ml double cream
40g toasted flaked almonds


1kg loaf tin greased and lined with baking parchment for the Madeira cake

Non-stick saucepan for the custard

Large glass serving bowl

Oven 170C/Gas 3/fan oven 150C

How to make the cake:

  • Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl, then simply add the rest of the cake ingredients except the milk. Mix with an electric hand whisk until you have a smooth consistency. Then add the milk, a tablespoon at a time until you have a creamy consistency that drops off a spoon easily when tapped on the side of the bowl.
  • Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin, levelling it off with the back of a tablespoon, and bake on a lower shelf of the oven for about 1 hour or until it feels springy in the centre. Leave to cool slightly before turning out onto a wire rack to cool.
  • Store in an airtight tin until you are ready to assemble the trifle.

How to make the custard:

  • Place the cream in a pan over a very gentle heat and warm it, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until it is just simmering. While the cream is heating, use a balloon whisk to whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, cornflour and vanilla in a bowl. Then, whisking the egg mixture all the time with one hand, gradually pour the hot cream into the bowl.
  • When you’ve added all the cream return the whole lot to the saucepan and put over the same gentle heat and stir with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula until the custard is thick and smooth. Don’t leave it or stop stirring as the custard will very readily stick or burn to the bottom of the pan.
  • Pour the custard into a clean bowl and cover the surface with cling film if you want to prevent a skin forming. Leave to cool.

How to put it all together:

  • Cut the Madeira cake into slices approx 1cm thick, spread with raspberry jam and sandwich together. Cut the sandwiches in half and place in your glass bowl on their edge so you can see the seam of jam. Cover the whole of the bottom of the bowl and carefully pour over the sherry trying not to splash the sides of the bowl. Leave to allow the alcohol to be absorbed by the cake.
  • Scatter the raspberries over the sponges and pour over any juices. Pour the cooled custard over the fruit.
  • Whip the remaining double cream until thick but not stiff. It should be a similar consistency to your custard. Spoon over the top of your trifle and spread carefully, you don’t want to push it into the custard, but float on the top. Finally sprinkle with the flaked almonds, cover and chill until ready to serve.

Use an alcohol of choice, you may prefer dry Sherry, or you could use Madeira or Marsala. Of course you could also make it alcohol free and use fruit juice, fruit syrup or cordial to soak the sponges.

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