How to Make a Trifle without a Recipe

December  8, 2014

Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: The most impressive holiday dessert is also the most adaptable. Associate Editor Marian Bull is layering up a trifle, and showing you how to adapt it to your own tastes (and what's in your pantry). 

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One of the most delightful food-related scenes from any sitcom ever, I'd argue, is the Friends Thanksgiving episode where Rachel volunteers to makes a “traditional English trifle” for dessert. Somehow the pages of her cookbook get stuck together, and she accidentally adds in a few ingredients from Shepherd’s pie, and so her trifle layers are as follows:

Ladyfingers, jam, custard (made from scratch!), then raspberries, more ladyfingers, beef sautéed with peas and onions, more custard, and then bananas, and whipped cream on top.

It’s disgusting, and we get to watch the entire table of friends take a few fearful bites and then find excuses to leave the table (Ross admits: “It tastes like feet!”), except for Joey, who houses a whole plateful, asking, “What’s not to like? Custard: Good! Jam: Good! Beef: Good!

Thankfully, the trifle you can -- and should -- make at home can be a little less experimental, and better received by your entire table. 


Trifles are layered desserts that usually include some sort of cake, a custard, fruit (fresh or preserved), and whipped cream, served in a big glass vessel so the layers show, sand-art style. They are elegant and stately, but possibly one of the easiest desserts you can make, once you have everything ready for assembly. They can land anywhere on the spectrum of ultra-DIY to mostly store-bought and, generously, are an excellent way to save overbaked or otherwise botched cake. 

Here’s how to make a beef-free trifle without a recipe: 

1. Choose your layers. For the cake: Try angel food, or chocolate, or even a quick bread. Anything will work, but you want something with a little bit of structure and a good crumb; a custardy cake isn’t your best bet. I went with gingerbread here, because it’s gingerbread season. Cut it into fat cubes. You can also go with ladyfingers (tiramisu!), or use cookies instead (à la banana pudding).

Consider a soak for your cake: You’ll often see angel food cake soaked in sherry or other fortified wine, but you could go boozier, or turn to fruit juice instead, or skip this step altogether.

As for the rest of it: Whip some cream. Maybe infuse it with bourbon if you’re me. Make pastry cream or pudding. Grab a jar of something jammy or saucy; I chose dulce de leche. Fresh fruit works too; pull a Rachel and slice in a banana, or use berries if it’s summertime. If you want things to be extra pretty, pick a garnish like crumbled cookies or candied ginger.


2. Pick the right vessel. If you don’t have a trifle bowl or ice bucket, layer yours in single-serving glasses. Old fashioned glasses and tumblers are nice; mason jars are twee but effective. 



3. Start layering! Start with cake. Then your jammy/saucy layer -- it will meld nicely with your cake cubes. Then pastry cream, then whipped cream.

Layers Trifle
Trifle Trifle


4. Repeat, until your layers are gone or your vessel is full.


Look at your trifle. Be proud of your trifle!



5. Garnish, because you can. Serve in glasses, with the biggest spoon you've got. Remind your guests to be grateful that you omitted the beef.


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Photos by James Ransom

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Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



Steven W. September 29, 2022
My wife doesn't have an endless supply of really good things she makes, but her trifle is and has been a big hit for decades. Layers of fudgy brownie chunks drizzled with Kalua (if no kids are eating it!), whipped cream, cooked and cooled chocolate pudding, and broken Hershey bars or even M and M's. The top always needs a full cover of nonpareils.
Mary W. March 27, 2016
My Easter dessert today. Madeleines + candied kumquats I canned a few weeks ago + vanilla custard + whipped cream. It looks beautiful, can't wait to taste it!
barbara M. March 25, 2016
This has so saved my 2016 Easter dessert - was going to make tiramisu but no mascarpone and no easy way to make it - have to decide what I'll put in for the fruit/jam, etc. but that is easy. Thanks as always and happy Spring!
katy April 4, 2015
I have searched high and low but cannot find where to get this beautifully simple trifle bowl. Anyone?
barbara M. March 25, 2016
Home Goods, etc. always has large gorgeous glass 'items' that would fill the bill.
Laura415 December 12, 2014
This time of year I'll be breaking out the canned summer fruit for this dish so using the jars seems kind of efficient. Would love one of those big ol trifle dishes tho:) Bourbon summer peaches + almond cake + whipped cream. Oh but also a seasonal trifle that is fantastic is whip cream+ creme fraiche swirl in some Hachiya persimmon puree then layer with cake, small cubes of fuyu persimmon and crystallized ginger. Chocolate cake + whipped cream with chestnut paste + canned summer cherries. I can't stop...
Scribbles December 11, 2014
Love a good trifle! And, twee or not, mason or canning jars are inexpensive and handy, guest love them.
Steven W. September 29, 2022
And the pint jars are the prefect size for a rich dessert like this can be!
bronwyncarlisle December 10, 2014
Who uses a recipe to make trifle?
Linda T. December 10, 2014
What is pastry cream?
Steven W. September 29, 2022
Think the filling of a Boston creme doughnut.
ann December 10, 2014
Don't forget the beef. Hysterical!
Shuchi December 9, 2014
Drool. Mine is made up of Butter / Sponge Cake + Milk & Brandy Soak + Vanilla or Chocolate Custard + Fresh Fruit Compote (love peach , banana & coconut or orange & chocolate) with a dash of cardamom & cinnamon & a teeny bit of whipped cream (coz you really don't need much with all the other gooey layers!).
aargersi December 8, 2014
trifle + wine + girl party at a lake house = hilarity and cake parts everywhere
Marian B. December 9, 2014
love this. can i come?
aargersi December 9, 2014
Absolutely! All you need is a swimsuit and a spoon! Oh, and a wine glass. Heh.
Ashley C. December 8, 2014
This looks delicious. I love that episode!!