How to Make a Trifle without a Recipe

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). 

Trifle on Food52

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.





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.


We’re looking for contributors! Email and tell us the dish you could make in your sleep, without a recipe. Check out what we’ve already covered.

Photos by James Ransom

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