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The Chumminess of a Trifle Pudding

From being the Tudor’s favourite to the piece de resistance in the Viceroy House to becoming the darling of the 70s and 80s, here’s how the Victorian creation won over the Indian palates – and imagination.

By Madhulika Dash, Picture Courtesy: Stock Images

“Let’s create the trifle,” announced seasoned chef and culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby) breaking the humming of the fridge in a kitchen that has been quiet for a while. The team around was looking at what is often explained as the “spoilt of a good service”.

Laid on the table was half a chocolate cake, sponges, brownies sides, biscuits – all gluten-free by the way - tins of cherries, a collection of winter fruits and of course half and a quarter of berry jam, made in-house. The next few hours, the team remained standing gawking as Chef Gorai decided to create what many instantly called the parfait – a popular 1894 French dessert that is said to have started the trend of layered dessert.

Only issue, it wasn’t.

Chef Gorai’s gloriously layered dessert with that quintessential soft snow peaks was his take on the British innovation called the Trifle Pudding, a dessert that had ruled the sweet roost since its arrival in India around The Crown rise century till early 2000. The beauty of trifle pudding, says the slow food advocate, “is that it brings together theatrics and taste in one big bowl of absolute indulgence. It needs no recipe – just a sense of proportion- and can be as lavish, classic or over the top as our imagination.”

Continues Chef Gorai, “there is nothing trifle about the Trifle Pudding, the British innovation that has inspired, in its wake, many a layered dessert. In fact, it could easily be the “Godfather” of all layered dessert, including the famous Diplomat Pudding or the German Lübscher Plettenpudding.”

Concurs award-winning pastry Chef Avijit Ghosh, who finds this Tudor court favourite a “blueprint” of not just the “dramatics” in the world of desserts but also making them the posterboys of neurogastronomy. After all, says Chef Ghosh, who has fashioned many a fruit-based dessert on the concept of trifle pudding, “it is with the eyes that we eat first. And trifle pudding, even in its basic of recipes, which calls in for custard poured over sponge cake soaked in fruit and sherry and topped with whipped cream, or as Thomas Dawson's 1585 book of English cookery The Good Huswifes Jewell had duly noted (rather standardised then) thick cream flavoured with sugar, ginger and rosewater, fits the bill to the T.”

Such was the rage of this dessert born off a homemaker’s ingenuity and the zeal to not let any food go to waste that even before the Trifle did become the piece de resistance of many a formal tables including the dinners at the Viceroy House and the post-independence diplomatic tables at the Rastrapati Bhavan, it had created its many versions including the popular Tipsy Squire and Tipsy Hedgehog in Britain, Scottish Strawberry Trifle, and of course the German favourite, Lübscher Plettenpudding – a pudding, says Chef Ghosh, “that the world, especially the Indian diners knew as the Diplomat Pudding because of its constant appearance on high tables.”

 

So how did this popular pudding originate? British history has little on the when and how part of it, however, the pudding first finds mention in 1598 when Oxford-educated translator John Florio called it, "A kinde of clouted creame called a foole or a trifle in English." Elizabeth I was on the throne, and the pudding, which was served along with its Hedgehog version on her table, was a basic affair of a cream and rosewater, flavored with ginger and sugar, a light frothy dessert, closer to a syllabub (cream whipped with fruit juice and liquor) than the sweet grandeur we know today. It wasn’t till the mid of 18 th century that the Trifle took on a more Cinderella’s Ballroom makeover with ratafia (almond-flavored biscuits) or macaroons soaked in sweet wine, custard and whipped cream decorated with dried flowers added into the list. The queen on throne this time was Victoria, the Empress of India.

It wasn’t just the ingredients that had changed in the Trifle between the reign of both the queens, it was also the making. A far cry from the simple layered recipe, the Victorian trifle introduced the tradition of soaking stale cake in full-bodied wines, layering with custard left from the nursery, fruits, jams or preserves of the season and then dousing it all (minutes before it was presented) with velvety cream that would cascade down giving that “theatre-like effect” as servers would walk into the dining hall carrying the big trifle stand and precariously placing it right in front of the Majesty for the table to admire.

It was the same effect that Chef Gorai, a self-confessed admirer of the Trifle Pudding – handiwork had on the kitchen team who took a while before partaking of this brilliantly conceived and played dessert. For Chef Ghosh though, the creation of trifle pudding is the ultimate test of a pastry chef’s understanding of not just texture, taste, flavour foreplay, but also “pastry techniques and the inherent nature of ingredients. While adding or enhancing Trifle Pudding one needs to know how the combination will play not only for the eye but the tongue as well.”

As one of the few desserts that was created to be nursed well, adds Chef Gorai, “trifle pudding’s recipe called for combination that either matured while resting or were consistent in their taste, irrespective of when the last bite was taken. This made Trifle Pudding making both exciting as well as challenging – and often would be done by the best in the business, thus needing a base recipe that could be played on.”

It was around the time of Victoria where Trifle Pudding’s basic recipe was first standardised: sponge cake soaked in sherry and perhaps brandy, covered with raspberry jam and then an egg custard, all topped by whipped cream. The recipe while set the tone for popularity, it did leave quite a leash for those who liked to follow their own path. Take for instance, says Chef Ghosh, “traditionally, the pudding top is decorated with angelica (a plant stem crystallized with sugar) and glace cherries – however, fresh fruits were equally welcome and became a part of the modern presentation. Likewise, the case with presentation that moved from the trifle stand to a glass bowl to individual portions served in tiny glasses.”

 

Fortunately for India, by the time the Victorian favourite made its in-way, it had already earned its blue stripes of being an Imperial favourite. But that is not to say that India did not add its own twist to the alcoholic pudding that was part of many a functions at the Army Messes, Gymkhana and even part of the formal menu at the Viceroy House, which continued to have its own little farm and garden to supply with the necessary ingredients that made a good Trifle.

One of the earliest favourites in Trifle, adds Chef Gorai, “was brandy followed by rum, given that it was a drink readily available – and immensely loved. The next was of course the use of the fresh fruit and the introduction of the classic custard bowl – which went from fairytale white porcelain to decorated ones to finally the custard bowl – a large oval bowl that could showcase the layers with aplomb. The dessert instead of being the last to appear became a part of the buffet display that would be placed for the theatrics and would reappear in the scene with a glorious crown of whipped cream just as the meal was coming to an end.”

In high tables like the one in Fort Kochi, Shimla House and then in Viceroy House, they followed the Queen’s protocol of the dessert making its entry at the end – unless of course it was a tea party, in which case it would be placed at the centre of the table.” Fascinatingly, continues the chef, “while trifle became a standard in the messes of armed forces and establishments run by Anglo Indians, especially during Christmas when it could hold in its own in the display table; even gracing many a formal meals hosted by the modern royalty, who tried fashioning much of their desserts to have that Trifle- effect, it wasn’t till the arrival of Bird custard that the Memsahibs would pass on to their Anglo Indian servants that the dessert began to have a mass- appeal as they began putting the easiness to use creating their very own concept of Trifle Pudding, which while less on the drama, ingredients and intimidation was great on the taste – and utilised all the leftovers from the original indulgence.

The fact, adds Chef Gorai, “that these new versions were made to appeal to the Indian palate and lavished on ingredients including fruits like banana, jams and preserves that was meant for them added to the appeal of the dessert.”

It was this version that became more popular given its less intimidating and more familiar appearance, given that Indians were getting used to the idea of having Whipped Cream or Balai on their desserts thanks to the Khubani Ka Meetha, which is play of dried apricot with balai or Indian style clotted cream.”

The rise of popularity of the trifle pudding, including the Victorian version that stayed on for a few years in the State dinners hosted in Rastrapati Bhavan, came with the emergence of two different food segments – the confectionaries and confectionary brands, and the arrival of nursery food in India. This ensured, says Chef Ghosh, “that making a trifle pudding, which by then had spewed quite a few other desserts including the custard and jelly, the banana pudding, sundaes, the non-alcoholic cobbler, the multilayer teacup cake and such, was indeed a fun activity with most ingredients ready to be sourced and economical.

The Brown & Polson offering of multi-flavoured custard powder was another incentive that made Trifle Pudding, a common favourite. “Such was the love for the pudding that from the late 50s to the early 80s, it remained a part and parcel of Club dining, dinners at the Army messes, and sit downs at a fine restaurant or hotels. It was of course the ultimate indulgence of the high tea parties as well.”

Despite its omnipresence, Trifle Pudding failed to get the high that it had achieved in England or Germany. Even though a beloved dessert, Trifle Pudding, which soon earned the nickname Tipsy Cake here too thanks to the light headedness one had after having so much of sweet and cream, had to share the limelight with others like the jelly, the banana pudding and even the much Indian Fruit Custard that soon took over thanks to the easiness of whisking one at the last moment.”

However, concludes Chef Ghosh, “when it came to the pastry world, Tipsy Pudding remained one of those few desserts that laid the foundation and the principal that lend its techniques to not only the making of quite a few cakes, including the butter cream, layer cake but also led forth the era of ‘desserts with drama’. And, of course, the idea of using glasses to present a multi-layered dessert, including Tiramisu.”

Clearly, here is one dessert of which nothing is trifle – the making, the ingredients and even the history.