Friday, January 7, 2022

My Homemade Spongy Trifle

Our 2021 Christmas trifle. 

One day, my naughty little sister put on her best party dress and skipped off to the birthday party of her friend, Bad Harry. While the other children played ring-of-roses, these two known trouble-makers snuck into the kitchen and dragged chairs to the larder shelf to admire Bad Harry's birthday dessert. Soon they were picking silver balls off the top, sticking their fingers into the cream and ultimately devouring, all in one go, the huge bowl of spongy trifle which had been prepared as the centerpiece of the feast. 

His mother discovered them in flagrante and was not impressed. Bad Harry was sent to bed, and my naughty little sister ran out the door and all the way home. That evening, neither one of them felt at all well and they never ate trifle again.

The end.

This is not a factual account from my own life, but a delightful story that I read many times to my daughters when they were young. 

We chortled as each step of mischief unfolds, and roared with delight as the children are caught red-handed, up to their elbows in the trifle bowl, mouths overflowing and creamy bits dribbled down the front of their party clothes. But always, just one question remained.

What exactly is a spongy trifle?

In pre-Google times, finding that answer took a bit of old-fashioned resourcefulness. At the library one day, I stepped into the cookbook aisle while my daughters entertained themselves with a game less naughty than stealing fancy desserts, and researched the matter.

Spongy trifle is a traditional English layered dessert: cake spread with jam, fresh fruit, custard, shortbread, and whipped cream, often decorated with - you guessed it - silver balls. 

As we admired the photos of gleaming glass-footed bowls filled with these lovely layers, we determined to make one for ourselves. 

So we did.

And we are still making them to this day.

Spongy trifle is standard fare at our Thanksgiving and Christmas tables and even after years of perfecting our favorite flavors, we have barely scratched the surface of all the variations I found on the pages of those cookbooks in the library so long ago.

Looks like we are going to be making spongy trifles - though hopefully not eating them all in one go - for many delicious years to come. 

* * * * *


Angel food cake or pound cake. Home baked from a box mix is fine Our family is divided into two camps on this front so we go back and forth. 

Blackberry or raspberry jam. I live with jam snobs and they always prefer Bonne Maman preserves

2-3 cups of fruit: We like fresh kiwi, bananas, and berries as well as canned mandarin oranges which are surprisingly good in a trifle. 

2 cups of vanilla pudding, prepared ahead of time and cooled to room temperature - Jell-O Cook and Serve or home made. We avoid instant pudding at all costs. 

10-12 shortbread cookies, store bought or home baked.. We also like Keebler Sandies.

2-3 cups heavy whipping cream, prepared and sugared to taste. Real cream is worth the extra work.


1. Choose a large glass bowl with tall, straight sides, if at all possible. If you want to make the biggest splash, an official trifle bowl is worth the investment. 

2. Prepare the individual elements as described. I usually make the pudding and any home baked elements a day or two before serving.

3. Assemble the trifle on the morning of the day it is to be served. The goal here is to work as tidily as possible so the sides of your dish will reveal neat, even layers. Eyeball the layers as you add them, adjusting proportions of each so that you will be able to fit five fairly equal layers into your bowl. 

Bottom layer: cake and jam:
  • Cut the cake in half; freeze one portion for your next spongy trifle.
  • Cut the remaining cake into 1/2 to 1-inch slices.
  • Spread half the cake slices with jam; top them with the remaining slices as if to create sandwiches. When they were young, my daughters adored this step and still line up to do it every year. 
  • Cut the cake and jam sandwiches into 1/2 to 1-inch cubes and arrange in the bottom of the glass dish. Use a spoon to gently pat into place. This layer will be bumpy but the next layer will smooth things out a bit. 
Second layer: fruit
  • Wash, peel, and cut the fresh fruit  into bite-sized pieces, as needed.
  • Drain the mandarin oranges.
  • Mix together in a bowl and carefully arrange on top of the cake cubes. Use a spoon to gently arrange the fruit into the nooks and crannies of the cake bits, creating a somewhat flat layer.
Third layer: pudding
  • Ever so carefully spoon the room temperature pudding in an even layer atop the fruit. 
  • Take exquisite care not to dribble the pudding on the inside of the glass bowl. 
  • Gently shaking the bowl sometimes helps to coax the pudding into an even layer. 
Fourth layer: cookies
  • Put half a package of cookies into a plastic food storage bag; bash it with a rolling pin to break the cookies into crumbs. Great job for a toddler. 
  • Spread the cookie crumbs atop the pudding, striving for an even layer.
  • Freeze the rest of the cookies, or eat them for nourishment.
Fifth and final layer: whipped cream
  • Top off the dish with a luscious layer of cream. 
  • If your dish is too full for a generous portion, serve the extra cream on the side. 
  • Cover with plastic wrap taking care not to let the plastic wrap touch the surface of the cream. If your dish is heaped with cream, use toothpicks to hold the plastic above the surface of the cream
  • In this case, beeswax wraps are not your friend. Use actual plastic wrap. Sorry, earth. 

4. Your trifle is now ready to go but it will benefit from 4-6 hours of resting which allows the layers plenty of time to happily meld together. 

5. Show off your beautiful trifle before serving! This is when the dish shines best, so make sure that everyone at your table gets an opportunity to see and admire your handiwork before you dig into it. 

6. When serving, use a long spoon to reach from top to bottom, so each serving includes a sampling of all the layers. And don't worry if the individual portions look a bit muddled and messy; the taste makes it all worthwhile!

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