This was supposed to be a recipe for a vegan trifle. It was going to be easy, fast, and extremely delicious. It was going to be in honour of my mother, whose birthday would be this month, had she not passed away in 2007. I was going to use Alpro custard, coconut whipped cream, and some kind of shop-bought vegan cake. Unfortunately, this kind of cake appears not to exist in our area, or if it does, it was so hard to find that I lost the will to continue searching for it.
All of which is to say: what was this trifle even supposed to be about? Did it HAVE to be vegan? Is there ever an occasion that justifies the use of animal products? I have been thinking a lot about the planetary health diet proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission. This diet isn’t vegan or vegetarian, although it can be. In this diet, fruit and veg are half of what you eat, and most protein comes from plants – legumes, pulses, nuts, etc. You can still eat dairy and animal proteins, just in much smaller quantities.
Which made me think: if dairy and animal protein are to be eaten sparingly, then the occasions on which we eat them—should these not be truly special? How can we treat these ingredients with the care and consideration they deserve?
Or to recall the words of Mary Oliver, in a manner in which she certainly not intend them: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious [weekly dairy and egg allowance]?
And to continue this line of questioning: why do you want to eat trifle to begin with? Why do you want to stand in front of the fridge gobbling up cold alcohol-soaked cake and cream and custard and fruit at the end of the day when no one is looking?
Now, I will be blunt: there is simply no suitable vegan alternative to my mom’s sherry trifle. I tried it with coconut whipped cream. I can make a vegan sponge from scratch. But coconut whipped cream is a finicky thing and crucially—my mom’s trifle did not taste like coconut. Likewise, the sponge and the custard. To make them from scratch would be to depart from the ultra-processed origins of the recipe: Jello pudding, Sara Lee pound cake. I make this recipe maybe once a year, around Christmas or Easter. It is going to contain full-fat whipped cream every time.
My mom’s sherry trifle was a departure from her usual style of cooking. In short, she was a hippie. Her dinners derived from Moosewood and she bought groceries from men with long grey hair, Birkenstocks, and linen tunics. She took us to co-op meetings where bulk grains were scooped from huge bags and the grown-ups portioned out pale cheese from wheels. For school lunches, I was sent blue corn chips and tuna on whole wheat bread. Not cool! So why the Jello?
For Christmas 1991, she sent everyone our family cookbook, our ‘Guide to Gourmet Experiences,’ which reveals the heart of this apparent contradiction: her love of food. She was savvy about plastic-free before it became an aspirational lifestyle choice, but she was also keen on moderation. Eat ‘mostly plants,’ in your daily life. But when it’s time to celebrate, eat trifle.
My version of my mom’s trifle uses a lot less sugar and accounts for the fact that you probably don’t want your kids to have that much alcohol. I love it because it’s fast, easy, and so much more tasty than the sum of its parts. You can put it together with store-cupboard ingredients, and that means you can make it when you’re camping if you use shelf-stable squirty cream. This is a great recipe to make with kids. I like to do individual portions in jam jars (Bonne Maman and Aldi) because:
- Everything looks better in a jam jar.
- Who has a trifle bowl? I don’t, but I have half a dozen jam jars.
- You can put a lid on it, and it keeps in the fridge for about 3 days
- You can tailor them to the preferences of each individual. Don’t like whipped cream? Someone hates custard? We can work around that!
- You can pretend you’re on Come Dine With Me, and act really petulant and cagey about the fact that nothing was from scratch. But to do this, they need to be served in martini glasses.
Betsy’s Bougie Boozy Bespoke Trifle
Mom actually never measured this out. You just slap it together and eat whatever’s left. That includes drinking an entire bottle of sherry.
Time: 30 minutes
A bottle of sweet sherry
Prepared custard (Alpro works!)
Fruit (tinned rhubarb or pineapple, or defrosted frozen berries)
- Slice the Madeira cake thinly, and spread with jam to make small sandwiches. These sandwiches may need to be cut into smaller cubes to fit into jars
- Whip your cream.
- Place one jam sandwich (or slightly less) into the bottom of your jar/cup
- Splash generously with sherry (or juice for children)
- Big spoonful of fruit
- Pour on some custard
- Top that with cream
- Repeat until jar/cup is full
- Let ever
Looking for some more no-bake dessert inspiration? Try our rocky road!