A Tale of Two Trifles

02 Dec 2011

I once compared our crazy marriage to sherry trifle: there are lovely sweet creamy bits, some definite fruity parts and pieces that go down hard.

Trifle is a new holiday tradition for me here in Ireland. I’m afraid the closest we came to trifle at Christmas when I was growing up was probably something involving Jell-o, whipped cream and fruit….unfathomably, the liquor part never caught on at our family gatherings Stateside.

Since I am in charge of the turkey and trifle for this year’s Christmas dinner, I decided to try my hand at whipping up a bowl this afternoon using a combination of both my mother-in-law and sis-and-law’s recipes that we could taste-test before the big event. I need to be positive that it’s juuuuusst right, no? {cough}

Every year my mother-in-law makes what we like to call her “Pioneer’s Trifle”. Pioneer, because as a young girl she took a lifelong vow to abstain from drinking alcohol, which in Ireland earns you the ‘Pioneer title.  And ‘Pioneer’s Trifle’ because:

Me: How would you describe your mother’s trifle?

Farmer: It’s a Pioneer’s Trifle.

Me: Why do you call it that?

Farmer: Because you wouldn’t want to be driving after eating it.

Her trifle is basically a massive jelly (Jell-o) shot with fruit and sponge suspended in it. The sponge has nearly disintegrated from being soaked in lashings of Sherry or Cognac. We spoon it up and serve it with a dollop of cream on top and it goes straight to your head. As far as the pioneer status? Eating alcohol is different than drinking it.

My lovely sis-in-law uses her own mother’s recipe which is a creamy, custardy version sans alcohol with fresh berries. Different, but equally glorious.

The hybrid of the two turned out positively divine. If you wanted less sponge, you could take out one layer. You can also omit the sherry or cognac, but I wouldn’t…

Next Wednesday, the 7th of December, I will be donning my butter apron for a fun holiday butter demo at The Tipperary Food Producers Christmas Cookery Extravaganza, taking place at the Clonmel Park Hotel in Clonmel, County Tipperary. The event features Rachel Allen preparing a variety of delicious dishes including her unique take on traditional Christmas favourites. Clonmel-based wine expert, Gary Gubbins of Red Nose Wine, will be giving guidance on wines to accompany the variety of dishes from the cookery demonstration. Doors open at 7:30PM. Homemade butter makes for a lovely edible Christmas gift! Come along to learn how to make your own and present it in pretty, festive packaging. I’d love to see you there =) xx

Holiday Sherry Trifle


600g/20oz Madeira or sponge cake, halved and cut into thick slices

300g/10oz fresh strawberries

6-8 tbsp sweet sherry or cognac

1.5 pints of prepared raspberry gelatin

500ml/ 2 cups thick custard, ready made or homemade

500ml/ 2 cups double or whipping cream, softly whipped

Handful, toasted, flaked almonds and fresh red currants


The trifle can be made in one large glass dish or into individual dessert glasses

Line the bottom of the dish or glasses with the cake slices.

Pour over sherry or cognac

Pour over cooled gelatin

Hull the strawberries and then layer evenly over the cake. Press lightly with a fork to release the juices.

Spoon over the custard in a thick layer.

Finish with a thick layer of whipped cream either spooned over or piped on using a piping bag

Decorate with toasted flaked almonds and pearls of red currants

Put in fridge to set for 2-3 hours before serving.

Slan Abhaile,


Photo and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2011

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24 Responses to “A Tale of Two Trifles”

  1. […] cake 1 // salted caramel 2 // trifle 3 // peanut butter cake 4 // caramel brownies 5 // […]

  2. Brenda Smith says:

    Although I’m not one for sweets, I think I could make an exception for this one. Looks beautiful & love the pioneer ancedote. Miss all your crazy stories.

  3. Noreen O'Sullivan says:

    Hi Imen, I was at the Tipperary food producers night in clonmel last night, well done on your demo really enjoyed it the butter was delicious, hoping to try my hand at making butter this weekend!
    Also I really enjoyed your gingerbread and would love to get the recipe if it wasn’t a family secret!! Thanks

    • imen says:

      Hi Noreen, thanks so much! It was a lot of fun. I just posted the recipe since so many were asking for it! Enjoy…let me know how you get on =) Imen xx

  4. Krista says:

    Oh how fun! I LOVE stories like this. 🙂 I haven’t made a real trifle either – only a sanitized non-alcoholic version. Tis a tragedy that must be remedied post haste. 🙂

    • imen says:

      Omg sweety, you must try this…..it’s a great combo of boozy creamy cakey goodness! Happy holidays xx

  5. stasty says:

    Great pic Imen and love your trifle dish. It’s kind of an institution in my home. My dad makes a great boozy one which we all love. Looking forward to trying yours.

    • imen says:

      I bet your father’s trifle is fabulous! I love this new tradition….yummy stuff. Happy Holidays to you xx

  6. I’ve never eaten or made a trifle, but it’s glorious looking!

    • imen says:

      Sue, it’s wonderful……go for it for the holidays this year! It really doesn’t take long to prepare. Thanks for your comment oxoxo

  7. So Beautiful so perfect Happy weekend xo

  8. Móna Wise says:

    You know, I have never been a fan of trifle Imen. I think that as a child I ate one my Granny made and it was soaked in bad sherry so I have never eaten it since. Now, looking at yours, and looking at my empty trifle bowl on the dresser, I think I am doing my kids an injustice by never having made a trifle for them. I must give this one a whirl. Love the photo. Very festive indeed.

    • imen says:

      Mona, I can imagine that taste memory lingering on….but I swear this one is divine. Leave out the booze. The kids will love it! Thank you for commenting xoxo

  9. SJ says:

    Hi Imen,

    Great post!
    Can you divulge where you got your fabulous bowl? I would love something like this for my parents house.


    • imen says:

      Hi SJ. Thank you! Of course, I looked high and low for a long time last year and found one at the Kitchen Range in Limerick. I think she still carries them. xx

  10. Heidi Leon says:

    Oh, Imen darling. I love to read your blog because (at least for me) most of the recipes you highlight are true gems; most of them new discovered gems. Thanks for that! xoxo

    • imen says:

      Awwwww. Heidi, that is so so kind, thank you! I am ALWAYS inspired by your blog and your life! Would love to meet you one day! xx

  11. Enjoyed this so much. My grown up sons still love the Christmas trifle! I leave out the jelly, making it red with berries instead. I love the variations but the sherry is essential and puts a bit of oomph into it. Always reminds me of my elderly aunts, who demurely accepted a little sherry for the sake of the season that was in it. Funny thing is the kids always preferred the trifle for breakfast the next day, and the big kids still do:~))

    • imen says:

      You mean “a drop of sherry”? I like it for breaky too….nice and creamy =) thanks for your comment. imen xx

  12. laura says:

    PS…. I have heard urban legends in Ireland about Pioneers getting caught for drink driving because they indulged in a bit too much sherry trifle. Have you heard any of those stories??

    • imen says:

      LOL. No! But wouldn’t surprise me. You could say my mother in law is the real “Pioneer Woman” I guess. xx

  13. laura says:

    I love trifle, a few years ago I had a trifle epiphany. (Previously I didn’t like it, but then I made my own!). Mine consists of home made sponge. It’s just NOT the same with pre bought sponge. …. honest! (Just the basic eggs, flour, sugar sponge, no butter). I usually bake the sponge in a flat tin and then turn it into a swiss roll slathered with the best raspberry jam I can find, , I saturate my homemade swissroll slices with the driest spanish sherry… one deliciously oaked rather than sweet bristol cream! I make Gordon Ramsay’s custard (400ml milk,120ml double cream, 1 vanilla pod split, 6 egg yolks, 60 g caster sugar, 1 tbsp cornflour….. milk, cream, vanilla seeds into heavy based saucepan, heat gently to infuse. large bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, cornflour together. when cream is bubbling remove from heat. slowly pour into egg mixture, whisking all the time, return to medium heat, keep whisking until custard thickens). After I have layered my sherry swissroll I sometimes add a layer of jelly, more often I don’t bother, I pour on the custard. Once the custard has set in the fridge, I pour on a layer of mashed raspberries, then I top it with cream and carmelised nuts. Delicious. I encourage you to try a dry sherry (usually a manzanilla) Imen, it is a world away from sweet sherry. 🙂

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