A Tale of Two Trifles: Strawberry Vanilla and Chocolate Raspberry, for a Graduation Party

Warning: this is a pretty long post, but includes some of my favorite tricks, so hopefully it will be worth it. Maybe get a fresh cup of coffee before you sit down to read it!

My daughter Maya, who is an excellent baker, decided that she couldn’t bear to have just a cake for her high school graduation party. Nope – what she really wanted is what we traditionally serve for birthdays around here: Strawberry Trifle.  It’s cool & creamy with soft custard and whipped cream, but not overly sweet.  We all love it.

I’ve shared my trifle recipe before (see link above) and it is pretty easy to make.  But honestly the thought of a giant trough of trifle is just too unappetizing to even consider. Trifle is lovely in a clear dish – until the first spoonful is removed and then it’s a sloppy mess. Delicious – but basically dessert carnage.

Fortunately, I’ve made individual trifles before and it’s a neat and lovely way to serve them. Making 100 individual servings is a little more serious endeavor, but I thought – we can do this! To add to the fun, we added Chocolate Raspberry Trifle.

Here’s how we did it:

The day before the party, we made 2 1/2 gallons of vanilla custard, and 1 1/4 gallons of chocolate custard. In hindsight I’d do the opposite, since the chocolate was a huge hit.

A triple batch of my regular recipe yields just a little more than a gallon, and my biggest pot just held a triple batch without disaster.

First trick: when making party-size quantities, reuse containers that the original ingredients came in.

After we’d made the custard, Taylor (who was helping me, God bless her!) poured the slightly cooled custard into a pitcher, put the lid on, and then poured the custard back into the empty gallon milk jugs. I also mixed up the frozen strawberries, sugar and sherry in a bowl and returned them to the frozen strawberry bag, which then just zipped shut. (Didn’t thaw or sweeten the raspberries or add anything else to them – I like the tartness they bring.)  Both milk jug and zipper bag were way easier to store in the fridge.

Second trick: buy an unfrosted chocolate cake and angel food cakes. The bakers at Costco thought we were nuts, but it worked beautifully.

Third and most important trick: We used shiny, clear plastic drinking glasses (the shorter, wider ones) and got 7 empty strawberry “tray” cartons from Costco to hold them. Each tray held 15 cups, and let us stack them neatly.

Fourth trick: on the morning of the party, we cut the cakes into 2″ pieces and put them in the bottom of each cup. Half the cups were chocolate and half were angel food. Then we covered them all with plastic wrap (just a couple of big sheets over each layer) and stacked them.

So to recap, the day before, we made the custards and sweetened the strawberries, which we stored in the refrigerator. We also had 6 cans of whipped cream and the mini-chocolate chips ready to go.

Morning of: we prepped the cups with cake.

Just before serving we dropped a nice spoonful of  fruit onto the cake, and poured about 1/3 cup custard directly out of the milk jugs onto the cake, and topped that with a spritz  of whipped cream (and sprinkled mini chocolate chips on the chocolate ones.)

Because it was a very warm day, we served the trifle cups in aluminum catering trays, nestled on top of a second tray with ice. A couple of wooden spoons in the ice kept the tray from sinking too far down, but kept the trifles nice and cool.

We were lucky enough to have two lovely young ladies helping during the party and they assembled the trifles and refilled the trays all evening.  The trifles were a hit and I know many people couldn’t resist seconds!

So for the record, here are the layers:

Chocolate Raspberry Trifle:

First layer: chocolate cake
Second layer: frozen raspberries
Third layer: chocolate custard
Fourth layer: whipped Cream
Topping: Sprinkle of Mini chocolate chips

Strawberry Trifle:

First layer: angel food cake
Second layer: strawberries, slightly sweetened and with a splash of sherry
Third layer: vanilla custard
Fourth layer: whipped Cream

We did end up with an extra 1/2 gallon of Vanilla custard, but what with one thing and another, that  has already mysteriously disappeared! (We do love our custard.)

So if you’re hosting a party and want a really “wow” dessert, try making individual trifles.

Strawberry Trifle

Trifle, which is a dish somewhat unfamiliar to most Americans, is a dangerous, dangerous dessert.

It starts off all pretty and shiny in a clear glass trifle dish, with bits of cake and strawberries creating a lovely layered display and a rich yellow custard and white fluffy whipped cream on top.  Soon though, it’s served and forms a rather untidy, gloppy serving of sheer heaven.  You have it once and think, I don’t have a trifle problem. Me? No – I can take it or leave it.  But then you see some strawberries with whipped cream nearby and suddenly you can taste the custard and cake, too.  There’s no getting away from it.

I’ve made trifle for years and it’s one of the most often requested birthday “cakes” from my family.  My recipe is a little different, but it’s what we like and what I find easiest to make.  You can substitute different fruits or liqueurs, and it is still wonderful. The most delightful part is the Rich Custard, but if you really must you can substitute vanilla pudding. Just add a bit more vanilla extract.


Angel Food Cake, cut into 1″ thick slices
2 pints of fresh or frozen strawberries, halved and tumbled with 1/4 cup sugar for 15 minutes. (Or 1 large container of strawberries in syrup, thawed.)
Generous splash of brandy or sherry – say 2 Tbsp?  I’ve used Cognac in a pinch, too.
Whipped Cream, if home made, sweeten to taste  or just used prepared
Slivered almonds, toasted in an oven for a few minutes.
Rich Custard (recipe below)

In a large, clear glass bowl, line bottom and sides with angel food cake slices.

Mix the brandy and sugar with the strawberries, and place the strawberries on the sides and on the bottom of the dish. You want the strawberries to provide a pop of red color. Pour any remaining liquid evenly over the bottom.

Pour cooled rich custard over the cake and strawberries, and top with whipped cream and slivered almonds. Serve immediately. If you have to wait to serve, refrigerate it and just hold off on the whipped cream and almonds until right before serving.

Rich Custard:

1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup cornstarch
5 cups whole milk
4 eggs, well beaten in a medium sized bowl
1 1/2 Tbsp vanilla

Blend sugar, salt, cornstarch and whole milk in a large saucepan on medium heat. Bring to a gentle boil stirring constantly. Once the custard reaches the boil, remove from heat and add 1 cup to the eggs in the bowl, stirring vigorously so the eggs don’t cook. Add another cup of milk mix to the eggs, and continue stirring.

Return the whole thing to the saucepan and put back on medium/low heat. Heat for 1-2 minutes until the custard is just starting to bubble a little. Don’t leave it for a second at this point or it will curdle. Remove from heat and add in vanilla. Let cool before adding to trifle dish.  It will thicken as it cools

This recipe also makes a lovely pouring custard. Just add another cup of milk. We don’t eat pouring custard much in the US, but it’s delicious dessert sauce. Just a bowl of fresh fruit with pouring custard poured over – it’s simple and wonderful.

For a party, use nice clear wide plastic glasses and build the trifle in them. Just before serving add the whipped cream and almonds – it’s so easy and looks really pretty

There are so many wonderful kinds of trifle.  Here are a couple of my favorites.

Mango Cardamom Trifle

Variation:  Chocolate Raspberry Trifle

Make chocolate custard:  skip the Vanilla, add a generous 1/3 cup cocoa to the sugar and cornstarch, and pour in a little of the milk. Stir well until the cocoa is completely mixed in.  We didn’t increase the sugar and it tasted fine.

Use slices of unfrosted chocolate cake and fresh or frozen raspberries, and top with whipped cream and a sprinkling of mini chocolate chips.

I’ve made both of these for a large graduation party – see my tips here: