Rhubarb berry trifle

On rhubarb, stewed fruit and England

rhubarb_trifle1.sidebar.jpgI first saw this curious plant called rhubarb during the time we lived for 5 years in Berkshire, England. I was 5 when we moved there. The rhubarb grew like a small jungle in a corner of the vegetable patch of the house we were renting, alongside some equally puzzling gooseberry bushes. Neither existed at all in Japan at the time, and my mother was at a loss as to what to do with them, until our next door neighbor lady told her how to stew them. The neighbor lady believed in stewing most fruit - she told my mother to stew or jam all of the raspberries too, since eating them raw may lead to upset small tummies. Thankfully my mother didn’t take her advice for all of the raspberries, and I still have memories of stickily enjoying bowls and bowls of red, ripe raspberries with clouds of whipped cream. One of the first things I did when I got my own garden was to plant several raspberry canes.

Stewed and cooked fruit figures quite prominently in my memories of English food at the time. This was in the ’70s. Whenever I was invited to tea at a friend’s house, there was usually always some sort of cooked fruit dish, be it a compote of peaches in the summer or apple and blackberry pie later on in the year. I think we only ate fresh, raw fruit at home, except for bananas and strawberries. I didn’t even know that gooseberries could be anything other than sour, green and only edible stewed with sugar, until I came to Switzerland and saw them left to ripen on a bush, turning a bright reddish-purple.

That penchant for cooking fruit does mean that there are many terrific fruity desserts (aka puddings) in British cookbooks. One of them is trifle. I’m in the midst of my annual rhubarb orgy period, and it’s one ‘fruit’ (though it’s botanically a vegetable) that needs to be cooked. Hence, the rhubarb trifle.

The slightly modernized trifle

A trifle is small pieces of sponge cake soaked in a sweet, fruity liquid, and topped with custard or cream. Some versions of trifle are quite alcoholic, but this one has no alcohol in it since I imagine my 8 year old self tucking into it. The components are simple: the fruit-liquidy mix, the cake, and the creamy topping. The key part that makes this trifle different is the rhubarb soaking liquid part, which is quite sour and not too sweet. I’ve added a few frozen berries (raspberries from last summer’s crop in fact) to make the red color more intense - if you have fresh strawberries by all means use those instead.

Trifle is traditionally topped with custard, cream or both. Here I have combined the two so to speak and topped it with vanilla ice cream instead - this is the slightly modernized part. It’s homemade but you can use a good store bought ice cream if you don’t want to bother, or don’t have an ice cream maker.

I think that the key to a good trifle is to not overload it with sponge cake, which makes it go rather stodgy. Add just a few pieces for the interesting texture. Note that I’ve used pieces of store bought roll cake here (called Swiss roll in England, but not really Swiss as far as I know) which adds some extra flavor. You can assemble it all in a big bowl, or in individual glasses as I’ve done here.

This is my pre-planned entry for Sam’s Fish and Quips event celebrating British food. See also my other two British-theme posts this week, Tasting Guinness Marmite and The Edwardians and their food.

Rhubarb berry trifle with vanilla ice cream


To keep the color as clean and red as possible, use only the red parts of rhubarb stalks. This may mean buying more rhubarb than you need. Use the green parts for another dish.

I’ve used cup measurements here throughout since it’s easier for this particular recipe, and everything is proportional. Note 1 cup = 250ml.

The ice cream part:

This makes more ice cream than you’ll probably need but…anything wrong with that? I don’t think so. You can skip this step and get some good quality store bought.

Vanilla Ice Cream

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp. real vanilla extract
  • 4 egg yolks from pasteurized eggs or eggs from very happy organic hens
  • 7/8th cups (a bit less than 1 cup) sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream

If using a vanilla pod, cut it open and scrape out the beans put the pod and the beans into the milk. Let the milk simmer for about 10-15 minutes on very low heat.

In a bowl, beat together the yolks and the sugar. Slowly add the heated milk (fish out the pod), beating vigorously. Add the vanilla extract if you are using that. Add the cream and whisk together. Let cool until ice cold. Put into an ice cream maker and churn following the manufacturer’s instructions. This, incidentally, is my standard vanilla ice cream recipe.

The rhubarb-berry part:

  • 8 cups of cut up red rhubarb
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen red berries (raspberries or strawberries or even red currants)
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Mix everything together in a non-reactive pan (stainless steel, enamel or non-stick. Not aluminum or iron in other words). Heat over medium-low heat - after a while it will become quite liquid. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the rhubarb pieces are soft.

Let cool to room temperature, and taste - if it seems too sour to you (remembering that you’ll be adding sweet cake pieces to it) add a little sugar and mix well to melt.

The cake part:

  • A store bought (Swiss) roll cake with a jam and cream filling

To assemble it all:

For every cup of the rhubarb mixture, add about 1/3 cup’s worth of cut up cake. Don’t overload the liquid with the cake, and reserve some for decoration. Allow the combined mixture to mellow and cool in the fridge for several hours.

To serve, scoop the mixture into individual parfait glasses or into one big glass bowl, a trifle bowl if you have one. The mixture should come up to about 2/3rds of the height of the glass. Top with scoops of softened vanilla ice cream, and decorate with slices of the roll cake.

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9 comments so far...

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I love this entry

It sums up the same time period for me too - stewed everything!
Though I am not certain about the gooseberries. We had a bush and they never went past green.
I don’t think so - I wil have to ask my mum about that.
I didn’t like gooseberries to be honest - I’d love to be able to try them again as an adult.

sam | 19 April, 2007 - 22:34

Oh god. It’s the first

Oh god. It’s the first sunny day in Tokyo in more than a week and I just want to be eating this RIGHT NOW. It looks great.

In the Australian climate rhubarb is in season most of the year, but for me it will always be a winter fruit (vegetable?). My mum’s stewed rhubarb and apple crumble was my favorite childhood dessert, and we ate it up in muffins, cakes and warm with custard too.  なつかしい! . I wonder if I can find any in Japan?

Cass | 20 April, 2007 - 02:26

rhubarb in Japan

Cass, see the comments on this post - it seems rhubarb is available at least in some parts of Japan.

Sam, ripe gooseberries are wonderful. They sell them here in Switzerland and I’ve seen them in France too. Very very short season as you might expect.

maki | 20 April, 2007 - 06:32

Um, your recipe sounds good,

Um, your recipe sounds good, I should try it out. I made a galette with the rhubarb that I bought a couple of days ago.

z | 20 April, 2007 - 23:30


Thanks Maki, I’ll look into that.

Cass | 23 April, 2007 - 05:51


There are many different varieties of gooseberries and the red ones you can eat raw are a different variety to the ones you talked about in the garden in England. Those gooseberries will never change colour how ever long you leave them and need to be stewed with sugar to make them palatable. Gooseberries also make very good chutney.

Jane Booth | 27 April, 2007 - 20:50


Try rhubarb and strawberries together. Sounds odd. I thought so too until I tried them and they compliment each other fantastically. Use 50/50 in all rhubarb recipes. The soft sweetness of the strawberries compliments the stringy tartness of the rhubarb. I discovered this combination last year and am hooked. I especially love the rhubarb and strawberry mix with plain yoghourt for breakfast.

Karen | 12 June, 2007 - 18:59

Re: Rhubarb berry trifle

Trifle has to be one of the most over-used/abused food terms in the world. It ranks behind pesto as a dish that has had too many liberties taken with it. In America, you sometimes see a few grapes and bananas tossed in a parfait with jello with a ton of cool whip called trifle. Even in England these mostly "jelly" based trifles are becoming the norm. I hate to be a purist, but I always thought trifle was cake (or ladyfingers) on the bottom, layers of fruit and jam, top with layers of custard and whipped cream (real whipped cream, thank you) and garnished with either fruit pieces or candy. What you have created Maki, at least is born out your lovely memories of an english garden. Perhaps its one of those dishes where every family has a slightly different vision of what is "proper."

Making a proper trifle is a major chore. I do it once a year for my Scottish husband, (who insists on booze, it has to be a very particular kind of sweet English liquor called Crabbe's green ginger. Uggh.) I love it but it is definitely a special occasion "pudding."

He loves Rhubarb though so maybe I'll be able to sneak your "cheaters" trifle past his defences.

Jennythenipper | 13 May, 2009 - 22:45

Re: Rhubarb berry trifle

I can't wait to try this. There are a group of girls that stay overnight some place about every three months and I am making this for desert. I love the modernized trifle idea.

Robin | 29 May, 2009 - 01:01

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