Despite what Rachel Green from Friends might lead you to believe, making a trifle is easy as…well, cake. Trifles are my favorite dessert to make for summer gatherings, especially when the weather is humid and we’ll be sharing with a lot of people. Angel food cake brings a profound lightness to the dessert, while pastry cream gives it an undercurrent of rich vanilla flavor.Jump to Recipe
This trifle shines a spotlight on seasonal fruit. If you’re lucky enough to have access to locally-grown strawberries and blueberries, this dessert allows them to shine. However, even if it’s the middle of winter, frozen berries (if thawed and drained) work just as well to bring natural brightness and beautiful color to this dessert.
This recipe has 3 main portions: the cake, the filling (which consists of pastry cream and fruit) and the whipped cream topping. Wait, I know it sounds intimidating, but don’t leave just yet. If you’re short on time or energy, there are a few shortcuts you can take to make the process easier.
In the recipe below, we make the pastry cream and whipped cream from scratch. They’re fairly basic recipes, and neither requires too many fancy ingredients. I don’t make the angel food cake from scratch – that comes from a box mix.
For the easiest, no-bake version of this recipe, you can make three primary substitutions. First, purchase an angel food cake from the bakery section of your grocery store. Second, substitute instant vanilla pudding for your pastry cream. (The flavor won’t be quite as rich, but it’ll do in a pinch.) Third, purchase Reddi-Whip or Cool Whip to use as topping for your trifle. This version of the recipe would be an awesome option if you were living in a dorm or didn’t have access to a stove/oven. If you opt for this method of trifle-making, skip to the “Assembly” section below.
If you would like to challenge yourself and make an expert-level version of this recipe, follow the recipe outlined below, but make your angel food cake from scratch. (I’ve never actually done this, as meringue is a bit too finicky for my enjoyment, but this would be a great opportunity to expand your baking skills. Because we chop up the cake once it’s baked, any imperfections in the cake would not be obvious; you might say this is a “low-whisk” expert-level option.)
Okay, enough chit chat. Let’s get down to business.
The Pastry Cream
I like to start by making the pastry cream – crème pâtissière if you’re French, or “crème pât” if you’re on the Great British Bake-Off. Americans most frequently encounter this luscious treat between the layers of Boston cream pie or piped into the center of cream puffs. It’s essentially a more thick, rich version of vanilla pudding, and it’s worth learning how to make.
Why do we make this part first? It’s made on the stove and needs quite a long time to cool. I’ll often make my pastry cream a day or two before making my trifle – both to reduce my day-of dishes and to give it time to chill in the fridge.
Combine the milk, salt, vanilla bean paste, and 4 tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sugar has completely dissolved (about 2 minutes) before removing from the heat.
In a separate bowl – ideally, in the bowl of your stand mixer, with the whisk attached – combine the remaining ¼ cup of sugar with the cornstarch and egg yolks, whisking together until the mixture is smooth.
Slowly drizzle ¼ cup of your warmed milk mixture into the egg mixture while whisking continuously. (Adding the warm mixture to the eggs too quickly will result in scrambled eggs and a ruined pastry cream!) Continue this process very slowly until the two are completely combined.
Once your mixture is smooth, return it to your saucepan over medium heat. Mix in butter and cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring continuously, until the mixture has thickened to the texture of pudding. Once the mixture is thick and glossy, remove from heat.
Optionally (though I recommend it), press your warm pastry cream through a mesh sieve. This will break down any chunks that may have formed and will give your cream a more uniform texture.
Place your strained pastry cream in a heat-proof bowl and cover with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from developing on its top. Refrigerate until cool (at least 2 hours).
Next we’ll bake the angel food cake. My box mix called for 1 1/2 cups of water and one box of angel food cake mix. These ingredients were briefly whipped together on medium speed until fluffy, transferred to a tube pan, and baked at 325 degrees F for about 40 minutes, until the top of the cake was golden brown.
Regardless of what recipe you use for angel food cake, make sure you turn it upside down and allow it to cool completely before trying to remove the cake from its pan.
Once your cake is completely cool, cut it into cubes roughly 1-2″ in diameter and set aside.
The Whipped Cream
Just before assembling your trifle, make your whipped cream. Pour heavy whipping cream into a large mixing bowl and combine it with powdered sugar and vanilla bean paste. Turn your mixer to medium speed and whip for about 2-3 minutes – until the cream forms stiff-ish peaks. Don’t overmix this cream unless you want to turn it into butter! You can set your finished whipped cream in the refrigerator while we assemble the trifle.
Finally, we get to talk about the fruit! I like to use strawberries and blueberries for this recipe. You can use whatever fruit you want, but if making this for a classica American patriotic holiday (Memorial Day, Fourth of July), the red, white, and blue color scheme helps this dessert fit the theme of the day.
When assembling a trifle, I recommend using a large, wide, clear bowl. This lets you show off all of the different layers of the dessert – and it allows the dessert to serve as a pretty centerpiece for your table. Any wide bowl would work as long as its deep enough to include all of your different layers. If you are short on clear serving bowls but still want to show off the layers of your trifle, you could make mini trifles using juice glasses. Serving sizes vary greatly with this dessert depending on the serving container, so use your best judgement when divvying out the ingredients for each layer.
Get your pastry cream out of the fridge and stir it vigorously with a fork; you want to incorporate a bit more air into the cream so that it spreads easier. Cover the bottom of your serving bowl with a single layer of the angel food cake cubes. Cover these cubes with a thin but even layer of pastry cream before covering with a thick layer of blueberries. Cover your blueberries with another layer of angel food cake.
Again, cover the cake with pastry cream and top the pastry cream with a thick layer of strawberries. Repeat this process until you run out of one of your ingredients. (For me, pastry cream and angel food cake are usually the limiting factors.)
Once you have added your final layer of fruit, top with your fresh whipped cream and garnish with additional fruit. Serve with a long-handled spoon to ensure that each serving includes all of the trifle’s layers.
Whew. You did it! A trifle is not a dessert for the faint of heart, but hopefully you’ve found that all of that hard work was worth it in the end. Please, if you take pictures of your final creation, tag @WhiskAverseBaking or leave a message in the comments below!
Red, White, and Blue Trifle
- 1 angel food cake baked and cooled
- 1 pint blueberries
- 1 pint strawberries diced
Pastry cream (Creme Patisserie)
- 2 cups whole milk
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter cubed
Whipped cream (~3 cups total)
- 2-3 cups heavy whipping cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
- 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
- Start by preparing your pastry cream. Combine milk, salt, vanilla bean paste, and 4 tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sugar has completely dissolved ( about 2 minutes) before removing from heat.
- In a separate bowl, combine the remaining ¼ cup of sugar with the cornstarch and egg yolks, whisking together until the mixture is smooth.
- Slowly drizzle ¼ cup of your warmed milk mixture into the egg mixture while whisking continuously. Continue whisking while slowly drizzling in the warmed mixture until the two are completely combined.
- Once your mixture is smooth, return it to your saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously and cook for about 7 minutes, until the mixture has thickened to the texture of pudding.
- Remove from heat and stir in butter. Continue stirring until the butter has melted and the cream is glossy.
- Strain the pastry cream through a mesh sieve, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cool – at least 2 hours.
- Once the mixture is cool and ready to serve, whisk until fluffy.
- Combine your heavy whipping crema, vanilla bean paste, and powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Whip on medium speed until soft peaks form (2-3 minutes). Do not overmix!
- Break or slice your room-temperature angel food cake into rough cubes, about 2 inches in diameter.
- Arrange a layer of cubes along the bottom of your trifle bowl. Top the cubes with a layer of pastry cream, followed by a layer of blueberries.
- Arrange another layer of cake cubes atop your blueberries, followed by a layer of pastry cream, topped by a layer of strawberries.
- Repeat this process as ingredients allow, alternating between strawberries and blueberries.
- Once you have reached the top of your trifle bowl or have run out of an ingredient, top your final layer of fruit with a layer of whipped cream. Garnish with additional fruit. (If making this dish ahead of time, refrigerate after adding the final layer of fruit and wait to garnish with whipped cream until immediately before serving.)
- Serve using a long-handled spoon; try to include as many layers as possible in each scoop as you serve.
- Purchase premade angel food cake
- Substitute pastry cream with 1-2 boxes of instant vanilla pudding
- Substitute homemade whipped cream with Cool Whip or Reddi-Whip. 1 container of either should suffice, unless you want a thicker layer of whipped cream on top.