What Is a Trifle?

Everything you need to know about one of the South’s classic desserts.

Peach Shortcake Trifle
Photo: Pam Lolley; Antonis Achilleos; Prop Styling: Ginny Branch; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Trifles are a classic Southern dessert, especially around the holidays. They're a great way to use up day-old cake or fresh fruit before it goes bad. They are a choose-your-own-dessert adventure where exact proportions aren't always needed and ingredients can be endlessly swapped to create new flavors. (Just don't go too wild, you don't want to end up with something like Rachel Green's infamous Thanksgiving trifle.)

What Is a Trifle?

Trifles originated in 18th century Britain and were designed to use up leftovers and stale cake. Pieces of the stale cake were soaked in alcohol and then stacked with fruit, custard, and sometimes jelly in a round bowl.

According to What's Cooking America, trifles and their iconic glass dishes came to America via the British who settled in the coastal South. The trifle became especially popular with Southern planters who loved indulgent desserts.

While its origins are British, the word trifle actually comes from the old French word trufe (or truffle), meaning something of little importance—an apt definition given how easy and effortless a trifle dessert is to make.

In the South, a trifle was also known as a "Tipsy Parson" because it was said to have lured many a Sunday-visiting preacher off the wagon. The dessert would become synonymous with the South because of Southern hostesses, who prided themselves on their elegant table settings and considered ornate glass trifle bowls to be a mandatory part of their table.

Today, a Southern holiday isn't complete without at least one trifle, typically built from layers of cake (sometimes drizzled in syrup), custard, and fruit, topped with whipped cream in a glass bowl that shows off the stunning layers.

How Do I Make a Trifle?

You can make a trifle by stacking (but not compressing) the three key components—cake, custard, and fruit—into distinct, even layers inside a serving dish of your choice. The order and ratio is truly up to you, but most trifles are an even split of each component and are stacked beginning with cake and ending with fruit, followed by whipped cream to finish.

Add more custard if you want an extra creamy trifle or double up on the fruit if that's your favorite part. If you're tight on time, store-bought cake, instant pudding, and canned whipped cream are great shortcuts that work well in almost every trifle recipe.

  • The cake: Pound cake or angel food cake are classic choices, but banana bread would work just as well. Instead of cake, try brownie pieces in your next trifle, crumbled meringue, or even crushed cookies. Trifles are also an excellent way to save a cake mistake. For example, a cake that stuck to the pan and tore can easily be cubed up and repurposed as a trifle.
  • The custard: Every trifle needs a creamy layer. Pudding or custard is traditional, but lemon curd and sweetened Greek yogurt or mascarpone also work well. You can even combine two classic Southern desserts with an Ambrosia trifle made with a coconut custard or a Banana Pudding Trifle.
  • The fruit: Fresh fruit in a trifle is always delicious, from summer peaches to sliced bananas, but macerated berries and compotes can be swapped in, too.
  • Syrup or jam: While optional, a syrup or jam can provide extra flavor. A drizzle of caramel in a chocolate trifle or jam swirled into a custard adds a bit of decadence.
  • Alcohol: Also optional, but for an adults-only trifle, the fruit or cake can be soaked in a boozy syrup, or alcohol can be added to the custard.

How Do I Serve a Trifle?

Trifles are great for entertaining as they are easy to scale up and down as needed. Traditionally, they are built in trifle dishes, a large glass footed bowl, but any large and deep glass bowl will do. A high-sided ceramic bowl can also work, although the layers won't be visible. You can mix up the presentation with individual trifles built in mason jars or cocktail glasses, which are especially nice for exact portioning.

When ready to serve, top with whipped cream and if you like a little decor, sprinkle anything from chopped toasted nuts to leftover cake or cookies crumbs on top.

Apple and Cherry Pie Trifle image
Photo: Gina DeSimone; Prop Styling: Kashara Johnson; Food Styling: Deb Wise

Common Questions About Trifles

Can I make a trifle a day ahead?

Yes! The key to a great trifle is letting it chill for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours. This allows the flavors to meld and makes it the perfect make-ahead dessert. Just be sure to leave off the top layer of cream until ready to serve, and cover it tightly with plastic wrap before placing in the refrigerator.

How long does a trifle last?

After serving, leftovers can stay in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days before getting soggy, but this can depend on what the trifle contains.

What makes the bottom layer of a trifle?

You can start by spreading a little bit of the custard on the bottom of your trifle dish, like a little bit of sauce when building a lasagna. Then add your cake, followed by the custard, and then the fruit. Repeat, beginning with the cake, and then finish the top with whipped cream. That said, there are no rules saying you can't mix up the order.

How many layers does a trifle have?

Trifles can contain as little as three layers (one per component: custard, cake, fruit), but you can chose to repeat each component two or three times to create six or nine layers. It will vary based on the size of your serving dish.

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