On trifle – its origins and history

Syllabub, fools, possets, and trifle are all so closely related that it’s hard to be exact when looking back through the mists of time as to which came first, and how they all developed.

What they all have in common is full, rich, cream flavoured with spices, often nutmeg, mace or cinnamon.

Posset

Possets are, or at least, originally were, served warm. Sack (which was an early form of sherry) was warmed with eggs, sugar and mace. Cream was warmed, and then poured, from a height, over it. The result was a hearty, warming drink which had separated into three parts: atop was an airy foam crust, below it a rich custard (thanks to the eggs), and below that a satisfyingly alcoholic liquid. Poorer people couldn’t afford sack, so they used ale instead and then bulked it out with bread…. You can see how that might develop towards trifle.

Syllabubs and junkets

The earliest recorded mention of a syllabub is by John Heywood in his Thersytes (an ‘interlude’, a sort of short theatrical entertainment), written around 1537: one of the characters says, “You and I… muste walke to him and eate a solybubbe.” Syllabubs were served cold, in glasses with spouts at the bottom (like modern gravy jugs which allow the user to bypass the fat) because with an early syllabub too, the whole idea was the separation. Cream, sack, and sugar were mixed, and left to stand overnight. They separated into rich curds at the top, eaten with a spoon, and an alcoholic liquid in the bottom, sucked up by the lucky recipients. Yes – not a great practice when trying to prevent the spread of disease, but syllabubs were made to be shared around.

For a brilliant description of the difficulties of re-creating an authentic syllabub, go to The Awl blog.

A precursor of the syllabub was junket, aka Miss Muffet’s curds and whey. Rennet is added to milk to split it, and the solid curds which form are sweetened with sugar.

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
There came a big spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away

Fools

Fools were a mix of crushed fruit (the name comes from the French ‘fouler’, to mash)… gooseberries were initially extremely popular and custard.

For a recipe for an almost instant fool on Saucy Dressings, go to Rhubarb Sensible.

rhubarb fool recipe
An eminently sensible fool!

Hedgehog Pudding

Hedgehog Pudding developed alongside trifle. Originally it was composed of a sort of sculptable marzipan made of ground almonds, eggs, sugar and butter which was moulded into the shape of a hedgehog, and then decorated with blanched almond ‘spikes’. Later hedgehogs were served on green jelly ‘lawns’ or cream ‘snow’ (sounds rather 60s). They may have looked great, but the taste wasn’t…. well, it wasn’t as wonderful as trifle. People liked the blanched almonds though.

And what about trifles?

First of all, where does the name come from? Well, the fabulous, over-the-top creations produced over recent centuries may not seem like trifles, but, yes, indeed, ‘trifle’ means ‘trifle’. Originally the word in Middle English was ‘trufle’…coming from Old French ‘trufle’, meaning a thing of little import – in culinary terms, cream and not much else.

The first recorded trifle recipe appears in The Good Huswifes Jewell, first published in 1585, and written by Thomas Dawson. It was actually called ‘trifle’, however, this was a very pared down version even by posset/syllabub/fool standards consisting only of a cream, sugar, ginger and rosewater. And it was served warm.

Next (nearly two hundred years later) we know is Hannah Glasse, who wrote The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published in 1747. Her book includes a recipe for trifle which looks anything but ‘plain and easy’, and is a lot more developed. Her recipe includes bones for calves’ feet which are used to make jelly.

A little while later (only about fifty years) you get A New System of Domestic Cookery, first published in 1806 by Maria Rundell. Rundell uses ratafia biscuits and raspberry jam as well as the already-established custard and hooch base.

And eventually (I can’t establish exactly when) the idea of the slivered almonds which had proved so popular on the hedgehog pudding, was incorporated as an attractive topping for trifles.

Where do all these puddings originate?

Some of the most elaborate and beautiful posset sets were made in other countries – in the Netherlands, and in Italy.

history of trifle
Posset pot made in Delft in The Netherlands, albeit incorporating a ‘naive’ English design.
history of trifle
Posset set given by the Spanish ambassador to Mary of England and Phillip of Spain, made by Benvenuto Cellini in Italy.

Nevertheless all of these puddings are documented in recipes published in English in England. The historian Alan Davidson cites all of them as being English. If anyone knows of these sorts of dishes being made in other countries, please let me know!

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