As we head into the holiday season, the cooks and bakers among us might be wondering: What sorts of desserts might Jane Austen have enjoyed on a merry December eve?
The short answer? Biscuits, puddings, and perhaps a fruit-flavored ice, if one were lucky. Or, a nice combination of the three: trifle! Comprising alternating layers of soaked sponge cake, custard, jam, and whipped cream, this rich and fluffy sweet treat is so much more than its parts.
So, if you’re looking for a fun kitchen adventure this season, grab your chef’s hat, an Austen novel or two, and be prepared for a dessert that is anything but trifling!
First, you’ll want to make your sponge cake. We used this recipe from Natasha’s Kitchen, with a few adaptations, but feel free to try your own, or save yourself the hassle and get a store-bought sponge, or lady fingers.
If you’re making the sponge from scratch, you’ll want to start by beating your eggs into a nice foam. After that, you’ll add your sugar, and beat the eggs some more. While whisking, you might also ponder: What are men to rocks and mountains of egg fluff, but trifles?
After sufficient contemplation, add in your flour and baking powder and whisk until you have a smooth batter, and then pour into a pre-greased pan. We used a muffin tin, for individual servings, but you could also use rounds for a larger dessert. After that, it’s into the oven, and onward to the custard.
As with the sponge, you could always use a store-bought custard if you aren’t feeling up to minding the stove. We used a custard recipe from The Kitchn.
There are several steps, but mainly they boil down to these:
Combine the ingredients (we mixed the egg and sugar separately, and then proofed with the milk) over hot water, or in a small pot, on medium/low heat.
Grab a novel to amuse yourself while stirring...
And stir a little more!
Finally remove from the heat, let cool, and chill until you need it next.
For the jam, the steps are quite similar: Simply throw your chosen fruit(s) into the pot with about a half-cup of sugar, a quarter cup fruit juice of your choice, and maybe a dash of brown sugar if you’re feeling adventurous. Cook on about medium heat until the fruit cooks down, and the contents of your pot resemble a syrup or sauce. As with the custard, chill to let set.
After a culinary journey longer than Darcy’s redemption arc, we come to the most exciting part of trifle-making: the assembly! We took our inspiration for this portion from Lavender and Lovage’s recipe for Whim Wham.
Essentially, soak your sponges in a tincture of your choice (typically some mixture of fruit juice and liquor), then coat them with your jam, add in a layer of custard, followed by a layer of whipped cream, and repeat as many times as you like.
Once your dessert is assembled, grab a spoon and dig into this delightful dessert!
For more about food from Jane Austen’s time and for recipes, check out Jane Austen & Co.’s webinar on food with food historian KC Hysmith.