A Trifle for your Holiday Table

One of my favorite recipes for the holidays is a trifle, that mix of biscuits, cream, and fruit, that makes as much a table decoration as a delicious dessert.  Here is the recipe from The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye [British Museum Press, 1995]  The first part of the recipe in italics is the text from either the manuscript of Martha Lloyd’s Recipe Book or Martha Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery (1806);  followed by the modern interpretation by Black and Le Faye.

A Trifle:  From Martha Lloyd’s Recipe Book, p. 35:

Take three Naple Biscuits cut them in Slices dip them in sack lay them in the bottom of your dish, then make a custard of a pint of cream & five Eggs & put over them then make a whipt Syllabub as light as possible to cover the whole the higher it is piled the handsomer it looks.


  • 1 quantity Solid Custard [see below]
  • plain Madeira cake, cut in 1-inch slice to line the bottom and 1/3 of the sides of a 2 1/2 pint [6 1/4-cup] glass bowl
  • medium dry sherry to moisten
  • 1 quantity Solid Syllabub [see below]
  • chopped, candied or crystallized fruits to decorate [optional]

The original Naples biscuits were twice-baked, hard sponge cakes stored for use when needed for eating with or in 18th-century sweet “creams”; I have used instead plain Madeira cake.  The sack (sherry) was intended to soften the biscuits, so go easy when adding it to the softer modern cake.

Make the Solid Custard first so that it is cooled (but not yet set) when you are ready to add it to the sponge cake and before you want to add the syllabub.  The dessert will then have interesting, contrasting layers.  Follow the original recipe above for adding the syllabub.  Use chopped, candied or crystallized fruits, if you wish, for a period-style decoration on top of the trifle.  [Serves 6]  [page 121]

Solid Custard: [Martha Lloyd’s Recipe Book,  p. 90]

In a quart of Milk boil and oz. of Isinglass until the latter nis dissolved, then strain it through a Sive, let it stand a short time, add the Yolks of five Eggs well beaten, mix them with the Milk & set it on the fire until it is as thick as a rich boiled Custard, sweeten & put it into a Mould to prepare it for the Table – A few Bitter Almonds or a Bay leaf will improve the flavour very much. 


  • 2 pints [5 cups]
  • 2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons powdered gelatin
  • 4 egg-yokes, beaten
  • 1-2 tablespoons caster (superfine) sugar
  • fresh bay leaves to decorate (optional)

Bring the milk with the bay leaves or leaf almost to scalding point in a saucepan, scatter on the gelatine and stir until it dissolves.  Leave to stand for a few minutes, then take out the bay and whisk in the egg yolks  and sugar.  Heat the mixture very slowly, stirring occasionally, so that it thickens before reaching the boil.  Transfer it to a decorative mould or dish and leave it to get thoroughly cold before serving.  This may take several hours.  Decorate with 1 or 2 fresh bay leaves if you like.  For a pouring custard, reduce or omit the gelatine.  [p. 61]

Solid Syllabubs: [Martha Rundell.  A New System of Domestic Cookery, 1806 ed., p. 204]

Mix a quart of thick raw cream, one pound of refined sugar, a pint and a half of fine raisin wine in a deep pan, put to it the grated peel and the juice of three lemons.  Beat, or whisk it one way half an hour,  then put it in a sieve with a bit of thin mustard laid smooth in the shallow end till next day.  Put in glasses.  It will keep good, in a cool place, ten days.


  • juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon lump sugar, coarsely crushed
  • 14 fl oz [1 3/4 cups] double (heavy) cream
  • 7oz (1 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 8fl oz (1 cup) medium-dry white wine
  • light sprinkling of dry English mustard powder

Beat the mixture in the bowl with an electric beater or rotary whisk until it is thick and stands in peaks.  Turn it into sparklingly clean dessert glasses and chill overnight.  As an attractive decoration, mix the reserved grated rind and crushed sugar and sprinkle this on the syllabubs just before serving. [p. 85]

Put aside half the grated lemon rind and all the lump sugar.  Mix all the rest of the ingredients in a deep bowl.  Use enough caster sugar to sweeten well but without being sickly; the exact quantity will depend on the sweetness of the wine.  Use only a thin sprinkling of mustard; it should just give “body” to the lemon and wine, not be noticable.


 Phew! that all seems exhausting, doesn’t it?  So for a simpler version [i.e the way I make it], you can use lady fingers or sponge cake, either make a soft custard or use vanilla pudding, alternate layers of the lady fingers, fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, kiwis, bananas, or what you will), rum to soak the cakes at each layer, top with whipped cream and strawberries to decorate… it is lovely, just watch the rum- it sinks to the bottom so the last helpings can cause inebriation! – my Fannie Farmer cookbook calls this “Tipsy Pudding” for a reason!

[Trifle image from trendir.com]

[Posted by Deb]

7 thoughts on “A Trifle for your Holiday Table

  1. Hi Janeen, Yes, we have come a long way! – but there is something restful about all those old recipes – they took all day! and thus one’s “to-do” list was a tad shorter than present day…. a list with just “Make Trifle” sounds awfully attractive right now!
    Thanks, as always for visiting.


  2. Yikes! Mustard powder and bay leaf!? Not in MY trifle, thank you veddy much! But it is so interesting to read these old recipes. I always make individual trifles. The big tifle looks beautiful until you start serving it. I just wrote out and blogged one of my trifle recipes, with links from Jane Austen’s World.


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