Of Syllabubs, Fools and Trifles
“It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.” —Arthur Conan Doyle
The evolution of the trifle dates back to the early 16th century with the popularity of a sweet, frothy drink known as a syllabub. It was made with milk or cream, to which wine or cider was added, causing it to curdle and separate. The curdled cream would float to the top, which would then be eaten with a spoon.
Then along comes a fool. No joke. Later in the 16th century, pureed fruit folded into sweet custard became a popular dessert known as a fool. No one is quite sure why it was called that, except perhaps because the French word fouler means “to crush” or “to press” (as in the fruit). Or it comes from a Middle Eastern dish called ful, although that is made with smashed beans flavored with garlic, spices or cream.
There is no record of the origin of the name trifle but as early as 1598 an Oxford-educated translator, John Florio, referred to ”A kinde of clouted creame called a foole or a trifle in English.” In the time of Elizabeth I a trifle was a simple combination of cream and rosewater, flavored with ginger and sugar, a light frothy dessert, closer to a syllabub (cream whipped with fruit juice and liquor) than a trifle.
But by the middle of the 18th century, trifles included ratafia (almond-flavored biscuits) or macaroons soaked in sweet wine, covered with custard and topped with whipped cream. According to the English food writer Elizabeth David, ”for nearly a century the syllabub had been keeping company with the trifle and in due course the trifle came to reign in the syllabub’s stead. The syllabub and the trifle were eventually amalgamated to make one glorious sticky mess.”
Despite its humble beginnings, the trifle has become quite an elaborate affair. Nothing to be trifled with, really. It is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate — with layers of sponge or biscuits, fruit and custard, and either jam or fruit-flavored gelatin, all topped with whipped cream or meringue and decorated with fruit or nuts or crumbled biscuits. To display its full glory, a trifle must be assembled and served in a clear glass bowl, often designed specifically for this purpose.
But outside of those parameters, a trifle can contain almost any flavors you desire. Traditionally, it would have sponge cake or ladyfingers as a base, although the more elaborate trifles begin with slices of Swiss roll, giving an even more dramatic effect. The custard would normally be vanilla, but it could also be chocolate, coffee-flavored, caramel or fruit-flavored. And the fruit could be anything that goes with the custard.
The bakers in the Great White Tent showed their creativity with flavor combinations for this signature bake: Ali created a coconut, raspberry and lemon meringue trifle topped with macarons. Mark used ginger cake and mangoes, passionfruit and dark rum with crushed meringues on top. Rob made an orange and rhubarb trifle. Beca’s was an orange and ginger trifle with ginger biscuits and orange jelly. And Howard made a caramel apple trifle with crème anglaise and macadamia nuts.
I decided to create a Banana Split Trifle, starting with Mary Berry’s Tipsy Trifle recipe on BBC.com, but altering it to include all the flavors of a banana split. I used Mary’s Swiss roll recipe but added a pineapple filling recipe from Food.com. On top of that I added sliced bananas and a drizzle of chocolate ganache followed by a layer of Mary’s custard, then a strawberry gelatin layer from a different trifle recipe I found on Taste.com.au, followed by more custard, sliced strawberries, more chocolate drizzle, and then some chopped pecans. I topped it off with Italian meringue, maraschino cherries, pecan halves and a few more banana slices.
Trifle is best eaten within a day or two of making it. Fortunately, our neighbors were able to come over and share it with us. The remarks I got were “light and refreshing” and “delicious!” So I know it was a hit!
Banana Split Trifle
Pineapple filling credit: Food.com
Strawberry jelly adapted from Taste.com.au
Italian meringue filling credit: BlossomToStem.net
For the pineapple filling:
- 3 T. cornstarch
- ½ c. + 1 T. sugar
- ½ t. salt
- 20 oz. can crushed pineapple in juice (reserve ½ c. juice for jelly layer, below)
- ½ c. water
- 3 T. butter
- In a heavy saucepan, combine cornstarch, sugar and salt. Drain pineapple and reserve ½ c. juice for strawberry jelly. Add pineapple, the rest of the juice and water, and mix well.
- Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a bubbling boil, stirring constantly. Once mixture comes to a boil, continue stirring constantly for about 5 more minutes, or until it’s thickened and it loses its milky look. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring to melt. Let cool, then store in refrigerator.
For the Swiss roll:
- 4 large eggs
- 1/2 c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- ¾ c. + 1 T. all-purpose flour
- 1 1/8 t. baking powder
- 2-3 T. powdered sugar, for dusting
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Grease and line a 13×9-inch pan with baking parchment.
- In a large mixer bowl, use the whisk attachment to whisk eggs and sugar together until the mixture is light and frothy and the whisk leaves a trail when lifted out. Sift the flour and baking powder into the mixture and carefully fold it in. Turn the mixture into the prepared baking pan and give it a gentle shake to level it off, making sure that it has spread evenly to the corners.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and begins to shrink from the edges of the pan. While the cake is baking, place a clean dish towel on the work surface and dust it with powdered sugar.
- Turn the cake out onto the prepared dish towel and gently peel off the paper. Trim the edges of the cake with a sharp knife to make straight, clean edges. Roll the cake up with the towel, starting from one long end. Leave to cool slightly, then unroll carefully and spread with pineapple filling. Roll it up firmly and wrap it in the dish towel. Refrigerate while preparing the rest of the components.
For the custard:
- 3 egg yolks
- ¼ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- 5½ T. cornstarch
- 1 t. vanilla extract
- 2 c. whole milk
- 1 c. half & half
- 2 ½ ounces (scant 1/3 c.) heavy whipping cream
- Put egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and vanilla into a large mixer bowl and whisk until blended. Heat the milk, half & half, and cream together in a saucepan until hot but not boiling. Gradually whisk this into the egg yolk mixture a little at a time, then return the mixture to the pan. Stir over a high heat until the mixture just comes to a boil and the custard thickens. Take off the heat and cover with cling film, pushing it down onto the surface of the custard to prevent a “skin” from forming. Allow to cool.
For the jelly:
- ½ lb. strawberries
- ½ c. pineapple juice (reserved from pineapple filling recipe)
- ½ c. water
- 1/3 c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- 3 t. unflavored powdered gelatin (like Knox)
- Place strawberries, juice and water into a blender pitcher and blend until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve into a medium saucepan. Stir the sugar into the strawberry mixture, and sprinkle the powdered gelatin on top. Place the pan over low heat, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until sugar and gelatin dissolve. Pour into a shallow, heat-proof dish and cover with plastic wrap. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until partially set.
For assembling the trifle:
- ½ c. medium dry sherry
- 1-2 bananas
- ¼ c. chocolate ganache, fudge sauce or chocolate syrup*
- ½ lb. strawberries
- ½ c. toasted pecans**
- 6-8 maraschino cherries
- Remove Swiss roll from refrigerator, and cut into 12-14 equal slices, about 1-inch thick. Arrange them in the bottom and partly up the sides of a glass bowl. (I could only fit 12 slices in mine, so I had two left over.) Brush the Swiss roll slices with sherry.
- Slice one banana and arrange slices on top of the cake. Warm the ganache or fudge sauce in the microwave, if needed, and drizzle half of it over the bananas. Spread one-half to two-thirds of the custard over the bananas, at least to cover the cake slices. Spread strawberry jelly over that, and top with the rest of the custard.
- Cut green stems off of berries and cut each berry in half from top to bottom. Arrange berries around the side of the bowl, cut sides against the glass, pushing them down into the custard so they don’t fall over. Arrange the rest of the berries in the center of the ring of berries. Drizzle with the rest of the chocolate. Chop all but 8 pecans and sprinkle chopped nuts over berries and chocolate. Refrigerate trifle while you make the meringue.
For the meringue:
- 2 egg whites
- 1/8 t. cream of tartar
- ½ c. sugar
- ¼ c. water
- Add egg whites and cream of tartar to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Heat sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When the sugar mixture reaches about 220°F, turn the mixer to medium speed and begin beating the egg whites. When the sugar mixture reaches 240°F, remove from heat and carefully pour the hot syrup into the mixer over the egg whites, being careful not to splash yourself. Increase the mixer speed to high, and beat until the egg whites form stiff peaks. Transfer to a piping bag and pipe onto the top of the trifle. If you want, brown the meringue with a kitchen torch.
- Arrange maraschino cherries and pecan halves on top of meringue. Refrigerate or serve immediately.
*NOTE: I used leftover ganache from this recipe: https://prettysimplesweet.com/chocolate-ganache/, but you can also use store-bought fudge or chocolate sauce.
**NOTE: To toast pecans, place on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer and place in a preheated 350°F oven for 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.