Every now and then I am struck by cravings for food. Occasionally, these cravings intersect with a moment of culinary inspiration that result in something that, although couldn’t necessarily be described as a gastronomic masterpiece, wouldn’t look out of place on a restaurant menu. I was fortunate enough to enjoy one of these moments last week.

I have a deep affection for custard: hot, cold, desperately eggy, richly vanilla-y, chocolate flavoured, and I’ll even admit to liking the lurid pink variety that was dished out liberally with school desserts. Make me a dessert involving custard — or crème pâtissière — and you will find a way to my heart. Baking is one of my favourite pastimes. I happily bake cakes in order to occupy myself, and then when my cake tin is full I give away the rest because I simply can’t eat that much cake. I eat lots of fruit, of any variety: citrus, tropical, or orchard. I get cranky if there isn’t enough in the house. Combining these three food stuffs is almost as close to heaven as I can imagine: especially when they manifest themselves in the form of trifle. Trifle contains alcohol, so it just gets better. Sad, aren’t I?

Last week my trifle-lust was at an all-time high. But the old-school trifle of my childhood — swiss roll, sherry, tinned peaches, custard, whipped cream, hundreds and thousands — wasn’t what I wanted. No, I wanted an Ella-created trifle. I wanted one of my own cakes deliberately left to go stale and then saturated with alcohol, topped with fresh fruit, homemade custard heaped on top of that, and finished with a little bit of cream. My only difficulty was deciding on the variety of trifle that would grace the bowl. I haven’t a clue how I hit upon this combination, but it worked. I am inordinately proud of it.

I normally issue all my recipes with the proviso that it’s a guide, you go with what works for you. It is mostly true in this instance, but I would like to issue a word of warning regarding the custard. Making custard is a reasonably scientific undertaking because you need the right quantity of egg to thicken the cream, and you require reasonable application of heat to enable the thickening but without making it split. So yes, please measure accurately and keep the heat moderate. I confess, I split a too-thin custard when I made this, so this is how I know. But I also know that you can rescue a splitting egg-cream mixture by immersing the pan into a sink of cold water and whisking so hard you think you’ll induce a hurricane.

Aside from the tension-fuelled custard-making exercise, this is an ideal recipe for a dinner party. The cake can be made well in advance because if it begins to stale it won’t have an unpleasant impact on the finished article. The oranges can also be prepared in advance and left to sugar in their own juices. Whipped cream can be kept in the fridge for twenty-four hours before you need to use it. Then it is just a case of the custard, and assembly. If you're really pushed for time — or don't feel that confident — you can use good shop-bought custard. But it has to be the stupidly expensive one from the chilled cabinet.

The cake I used for the base is one the easiest I know to make. I would say one of my favourites, but I’m not fussy about cake, I’ll eat pretty much anything sent my way. This one is dense and sticky and offsets the alcohol beautifully. If you want to make it as a cake for cake-eating purposes, go right ahead, although you might prefer to make it with dark chocolate. What you do need to use is the bitterest marmalade you can find — it has to cut through the sweetness of the white chocolate. My original intention had been to steep the cake in Cointreau to contribute to the orange-y goodness of the final product, but it appears that I’ve drunk all the Cointreau thus needed a suitable replacement. After much deliberation I decided that vodka would be the way forward. Really though, you could use anything you think might work.

My beloved KitchenAid was an absolute marvel when it came to making this, but a standard electric whisk would suffice. Along with a heavy-bottomed saucepan, several large mixing bowls, and a container such as a large glass bowl suitable for the finished article. Of course, if you wanted to go for ultimate kitsch value, you could put it in sundae glasses.

Okay, that’s more than enough preamble, time to get on with things.


  • Custard
    • 1 pint (500 ml) single cream
    • Grated rind of one orange
    • 5 egg yolks
    • 1 tbsp caster sugar


Melt the butter and chocolate in a heavy-based pan over a gentle flame. This does need to be done gently, or the sugar content of the chocolate will cause nasty scorching. When that has melted, add the marmalade, mix until smooth and remove from the heat. Then add the sugar and eggs and beat well. Finally fold in the flour a few spoons at a time. Transfer the batter from the saucepan to a lined 9 inch (23 cm) spring form cake tin. If you don’t have a spring form, a loose-bottomed pan will also accomplish the job. Bake for 45 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius, or until the cake is springy to the touch and possibly pulling away from the edges of the tin.

Use a knife to peel and segment the oranges: you don’t want any pith on them, just luscious juicy fruit. Put it in a bowl and leave it to macerate in a couple of tablespoons of vodka.

Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar. Grate the rind of the orange into the cream and heat gently until it is around body temperature. If you've a nifty kitchen thermometer, now is the time to get it out. I'm not that refined. I dunk my finger in the pan. Gently pour the warm cream over the eggs and sugar, beating constantly until combined. Return the eggy cream to the pan and place over a moderate heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until it has thickened. Remove from the heat, and allow to cool. (Please, don't put it anywhere near the fridge. Just leave it on the side.)

Whip your cream. I prefer it softly beaten, rather than just about to become butter, but whatever you prefer.

Now it's time to assemble this baby. Divide your cake into quarters, and then slice each quarter into slices approximately one inch (2.5 cm) wide. Keep your blade parallel to one of the radii of the cake. You'll have slices of varying length, but then you can have fun arranging them as a jigsaw puzzle that covers the bottom of your trifle bowl. You won't use all of the cake, probably two thirds to three quarters, but it makes for good eating. Cake layered in the bowl? Excellent. Douse it liberally with vodka. Now toss over the orange segments that have been macerating. Pour over the liquid, too. This needs to be followed by the custard. Top it off with the whipped cream, and if you feel like getting decorative, some slivered almonds. If you want to use hundreds and thousands or white chocolate curls, that's fine. Just don't tell me that you did it.

Given it's trifle your guests might be sceptical initially, but hopefully one mouthful will win them over. If it doesn't, you can eat the leftovers for breakfast. It's great with coffee on a hangover.


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