How To Make the Best Strawberry Trifle

How To Make the Best Strawberry Trifle

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Meghan Splawn
May 3, 2017
(Image credit: Christine Han)

Trifles are a British classic, but they're also the scrappiest no-bake dessert around. Built from leftover cake (or brownies, or cookies), layered with pudding, and served with a queenly crown of whipped cream, trifles are amazing at pleasing a crowd with their towering layers. They're also surprisingly manageable to make when you've got all the basics down.

Here we are showing you the basics on trifle-making with a strawberry shortcake version. Rich with creamy vanilla pudding, studded with ripe strawberries, and perfumed with a vanilla syrup that revives even the stalest of cakes, it will make you love strawberry shortcake even more.

Any home cook who considers dessert better when there's a make-ahead element needs to know how to make one so today, we are diving deep into the layers that make trifle a triumph of no-bake dessert.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

6 Keys to the Best Trifle

This recipe will do the teaching with the prettiest strawberry shortcake trifle. We'll cover everything from which dish to choose to the small tweak you have to make to the whipped cream to make the dessert a masterpiece. Along the way, there are a few tips to help you make smart shortcuts. Here's what we're covering.

  • The dish: Which to pick and why.
  • The baked goods: How to prep them.
  • The pudding: Why homemade is best.
  • The syrup: Learn why it's non-negotiable.
  • The whipped cream: There's one secret ingredient.
  • The fruit: Probably the easiest part.

The Dish: You've Got 3 Good Options

Trifle bowls are beautiful glass bowls with a foot similar to a cake stand. You can very often find them at second-hand stores, as folks receive them as gifts or use them once and discard them. Personally, I use my trifle bowl often for serving everything from salads to snack mix at family parties, but I also love a clear glass vase for building trifles too.

You need a two-quart container for building the trifle in. Obviously glass lets you show off a bit, and something with straight sides makes layering and scooping more consistent throughout the trifle. In a pinch, use a glass mixing bowl or even the clear outer bowl of your salad spinner.

See our favorites and more ideas: The 3 Best Containers for Building a Trifle

(Image credit: Christine Han)

The Baked Goods: When Dry and Crusty Is a Good Thing

The best trifle starts with dry baked goods. Seems contrary to building "the best" of something, but a trifle is really the best place to put your weary cakes and dried cookies to good use. Pound cake or a simple white cake is considered the gold standard because it tends to dry up before it spoils. If you've got leftover brownies or cookies, they are just as welcome in trifle as cake. Just make sure the baked goods are cooled and dried out a bit before building your trifle so that they can soak up some simple syrup and provide some contrast to all the creamy layers.

Tip: If you've got fresh pound cake, dry it in a 250°F oven for about an hour to dry out and "toast" it before making the trifle.

The Syrup: The Secret to the Best Trifle

If you take only one thing away from this recipe, let it be this: You need simple syrup to make a killer trifle. Simple syrup is usually equal parts sugar and water, but it can be flavored a myriad of ways to enhance everything from cocktails to cake. Here, simple syrup moistens slightly dry cake, but it can rescue really, really dry cake and still turn it into a tremendous trifle. Not only does simple syrup save stale cake, but it's also a delivery device for even more vanilla flavor.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

The Pudding: Make It from Scratch, Friends

Without pudding, this trifle is just a riff on strawberry shortcake, which, while still delicious, isn't what we are after. Every time I make vanilla pudding I remember how simply stunning it is in flavor and texture; it truly beats the pants off powdered mix. Here's what you need to know about making pudding at home.

  • Vanilla pudding is made by thickening milk and cream with cornstarch and eggs.
  • Whisk the cornstarch with sugar to remove any lumps.
  • Temper the warm dairy mixture into the egg and cornstarch mixture to avoid curdling the eggs.
  • Cool the pudding completely before building the trifle. Pouring the warm pudding into a wide, shallow baking dish will cool it quickly.

The Fruit: You Can Make Almost Anything Work

We often think of trifles as a place for beautiful, peak-season produce, but that's not actually the case. Remember that trifles are scrappy! While we urge you to go with sliced fresh ripe strawberries, you can also use the berries you cut up over the weekend but didn't eat, or thaw frozen berries and use them in a trifle as well. Short on fresh strawberries? Spoon strawberry preserves into the trifle along with the berries for added flavor and moisture.

Tip: Mary Berry would probably tell you that a true English trifle includes jelly, and in her very British way she means a gelatin-set fruit purée closer to what Americans consider jello. I wouldn't suggest using any jam or jelly, but if you've got homemade preserves, this would be the best place to use them.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

The Whipped Cream: Basically Homemade Cool Whip

The best whipped cream for trifle is one set with just a wee bit of gelatin, sweetened and scented with vanilla. Think of it as Cool Whip at home. Try not to be intimidated by the gelatin — it's a mere 1/4 teaspoon, and you're going to bloom it in a little water, melt it, and drizzle it into the whipping cream like a real pro. It will make for a whipped cream that won't soften as the trifle sits and for a more scoopable finished dessert. You can substitute one tub of Cool Whip in a pinch — or if you just really love Cool Whip.

Learn everything else you need to know: How To Make Whipped Cream

Serving and Storing Trifle

All those layers that look so beautiful in the trifle dish won't carry over to the serving plate, so expect the trifle to be a gorgeous, messy heap of berries, whipped cream, and cake on the plate. Better yet, serve trifle in small bowls with a spoon for maximum trifle enjoyment.

Leftover trifle can be stored, loosely covered in the fridge, for up to 3 days, after which it will still be edible but the cake will be very soggy and the pudding will become looser, soaking up the whipped cream and syrup. I haven't tried it yet, but I bet you could turn leftover trifle into a very delicious milkshake.

How To Make a Trifle

Serves 16

What You Need

Ingredients
For the vanilla pudding:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the vanilla simple syrup:
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped

For the whipped cream:
1/2 teaspoon unflavored powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons water
2 cups very cold heavy cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For building the trifle:
1 1/2 pounds strawberries, trimmed and quartered
1 1/2 pounds day-old pound cake, cubed

Equipment
Measuring cups and spoons
Whisk
Rubber spatula or wooden spoon
Mixing bowls
Stand mixer or electric hand mixer
2-quart trifle dish

Instructions

  1. Make the pudding: Place the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan and whisk together, breaking up any clumps in the sugar or starch. Add the eggs and egg yolk and whisk until completely smooth. Whisk in the milk and cream. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, until the mixture thickens and bubbles around the edge, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the vanilla extract.
  2. Cool the pudding: Pour the finished pudding into a shallow pan. Place a layer of plastic wrap directly onto the custard, and chill for at least 2 hours before building the trifle.
  3. Make the syrup: Combine the sugar, water, and vanilla bean seeds in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  4. Make the whipped cream: Mix the gelatin and water in a small bowl and set aside for 5 minutes to bloom. Microwave the gelatin until melted, 7 to 10 seconds. Place the cream, sugar, and vanilla in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer or hand whisk and large bowl.) Beat to soft peaks. With the mixer running or while whisking, pour in the gelatin and whip to stiff peaks.
  5. Build the trifle: Start with an even layer of pound cake in the bottom of a 2-quart trifle dish or clear glass bowl. Drizzle the cake with 1/2 cup of the vanilla syrup. Spoon 1/3 of the vanilla pudding onto the pound cake, gently pressing to force the pudding in between the pound cake pieces, then smoothing into an even layer. Top evenly with 1/3 of the strawberries, placing as many against the glass as possible for a beautiful presentation. Top with 1/3 of the whipped cream. Repeat with the layering twice more: pound cake, vanilla syrup, pudding, strawberries, and whipped cream.
  6. Garnish and refrigerate: Sprinkle the top of the trifle with any extra cake pieces or crumbs and strawberries. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Recipe Notes

  • Storage: Leftover trifle can be stored, loosely covered in the fridge, for up to 3 days, after which it will still be edible but the cake will be very soggy and the pudding will become looser, soaking up the whipped cream and syrup.
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