Polly’s trifle had a pinch of the Great Depression and an ounce of world war (both one and two). The trifle was layered and solid, with ingredients to tough weather times and food rations. It had day-old pound cake soaked in sherry, jelly made from packet crystals and Bird’s Instant Custard, thick enough to coat a spoon. In bleak, post-war England, when fresh ingredients were scarce, she’d pile it high with whipped evaporated milk and a festive sprinkling of red and green glace cherries.
In mum’s hands, Polly’s trifle got a reboot that sang of summer. Store-bought jam rolls replaced the sponge, and there were layers of aeroplane jelly and vanilla custard that was rich enough to cut through the harsh, brandy rakija. Clouds of whipped cream and summer berries finished it off.
Trifle is thought to have evolved from fruit fool, an English dessert made by folding stewed gooseberries into a sweet custard. Records suggest that jelly appeared sometime in the 18th century, with calf bones boiled for the gelatin. The horror.
This ‘tipsy cake’ lives up to its name, as trifling with the ingredients rarely disappoints. Be brazen with the booze. If you’ve got fresh fruit, sugar and gelatin on hand, it’s worth making the jelly from scratch. Once you master the basics, start playing with the flavours.
I’ve paired Madeira cake and Cointreau, layered fresh passionfruit and mango, and swapped out the cream for lightly sweetened mascarpone. You can also soak brownies in a coffee liqueur, sprinkle this with crushed Maltesers, and top with chocolate custard and sweetened cream.
However, it’s Polly’s trifle I look forward to at Christmas for its nostalgic trip down memory lane to childhood summers filled with backyard cricket, TV reruns and days spent rollerskating up and down the street. Those halcyon days rolled into one another until, with a jolt, it was January, and I was once more donning a school uniform and complaining about the starchy collar.
Tangled in those memories is a scorcher New Year’s Eve, memorable for the party my parents threw in the backyard. They must have had a touch of sunstroke. How else to explain why we children were banished to the house?
“It’s Polly’s trifle I look forward to at Christmas for its nostalgic trip down memory lane to childhood summers filled with backyard cricket, TV reruns and days spent rollerskating up and down the street.”
While my father set up a conga line of tables beneath the grapevines and the guests slowly arrived, my brothers, cousins and I hatched a Lord of the Flies-style heist in protest. The idea was simple enough: as the adults made merry, we’d make it off with all the food.
We set off covertly in pairs, stifling giggles at our mission. The French onion dip and Jatz biscuits were quickly spirited into the wardrobe, and laid to rest atop my brother’s smelly football boots. The cabanossi and cheese hedgehog found a hidey-hole among the jumpers. Trays of meat and sausages were stacked higgledy-piggledy atop sports bags. Last but not least came Polly’s trifle, a striped yellow, pink and white confection, balanced precariously on top of it all like a festive Christmas star.
Flushed with excitement, we didn’t hear the backdoor swing open, footsteps in the kitchen or my mum’s short, sharp cry of surprise. But my parents soon thundered into the bedroom and discovered our uneaten spoils of war.
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This classic English trifle is full of shortcuts for budget-conscious cooks. You will need to begin this recipe at least one day ahead to ensure the jelly and custard are completely set.
• Sjiivovica is a Croatian fruit brandy found in most bottle shops and liquor stores.