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Learn how to make The Best gluten free trifle! You can either make it completely from scratch with this homemade gluten free sponge cake and homemade custard, strawberries and jelly, or substitute store-bought components for a quick and easy dessert.
While trifle is a super common dessert in New Zealand, I never really grew up eating it. I have a small family and we always wanted Mum’s tiramisu and Grandma’s pavlova or meringues every Christmas, so we didn’t have much room to make other desserts.
So when I decided I wanted to create The Best gluten free trifle recipe, I soon learned that “the best way” is so subjective. While there are three distinct main components of trifle – cake, fruit and custard, trifle has so many different variations, and everyone thinks that the way they make it (or the way their Mum/Grandma/Uncle/Second cousin makes it) is the best.
And there are just so many options. Homemade or store-bought custard? Jelly or fruit? Or both? Fresh fruit or canned? Plain sponge, or jam-covered sponge? Sherry? Or kid-friendly?
As someone who gets paralysed by having to make decisions, I decided the best thing to do was to make the trifle I wanted to make, but give you options to build your very own favourite trifle.
So the recipe card below will show you how to make this particular, ridiculously delicious gluten-free trifle with homemade custard, vanilla-soaked strawberries and homemade gluten-free sponge, and in this post, I will tell you how you can switch up the recipe to include your own favourites.
I’m making the components from scratch, but I’ll also tell you how to cut some corners and use ready-made components to save time and energy if you prefer.
Anyway, let’s talk gluten-free trifle details.
Trifle Components/ Options
Gluten Free Sponge
The first, non-negotiable component of any trifle is that there has to be a cake layer, and a gluten free trifle is no exception. A plain/vanilla sponge cake is probably most traditional, but any kind of light cake such as a butter cake or pound cake will work. If you want to go non-traditional you can use heavier cakes or chocolate brownies.
Getting a store-bought gluten-free sponge cake isn’t an option where I live, so I needed to make one for my trifle. But if grabbing a nice, fresh gluten free cake from the supermarket is an option for you, then by all means do that.
If you’re not a keen baker but still want to use a home-baked cake, you could consider a box mix vanilla cake. We don’t need anything fancy here, the flavour comes from the other ingredients anyway.
And if you like the look of this trifle but don’t need it to be gluten free, you can easily substitute a regular sponge cake for the gluten free one, and do everything else the same.
Gluten Free Custard
The biggest decision when it comes to custard for trifle is: homemade or store-bought?
If you’re short on time, or just don’t want to make a custard, then buying a good quality, thick ready-made custard is a great option. If you want to jazz it up a bit and make it taste a bit more homemade, you can stir in some extra vanilla extract or vanilla paste. Don’t forget to check the ingredients to make sure it’s gluten free, as some custards are thickened with wheat-based ingredients.
If you prefer to make a homemade custard, then I have a recipe for you down below. It’s a thick egg yolk custard thickened with cornflour (cornstarch) and flavoured with vanilla paste.
You can also make a homemade custard using custard powder.
The easiest option, and great for when berries are in season. You can use any combination of berries you like, just chop up any bigger ones so they’ll fit on a spoon. When stone fruits are in season, you can use chopped fresh peaches, plums or nectarines.
You could also go tropical with tropical fruits such as pineapple and mango. Again, just chop them into bite-sized pieces.
A great option for when fresh berries aren’t in season. You can use pretty much any kind of tinned or bottled fruit that you like. It doesn’t matter too much whether the fruit is tinned in juice or syrup, just drain the fruit before you use it, and if you want to you can reserve the juice or syrup and use it to drizzle over the sponge cake for flavour and moisture.
Another good option for when the fruit you want to use isn’t in season. Just thaw the fruit, and you can use any juice that comes off it to moisten the sponge.
This is what I’m going with for this trifle. Macerating sounds fancy, but pretty much just means that the fruit is sprinkled with sugar (and in this case, some vanilla) and left to soak in its own juices. The sugar draws the juice out of the fruit and leaves you with lightly vanilla flavoured pieces of fruit and a lovely fruit-vanilla syrup. I’m using strawberries here, but you can pretty much use any combination of berries.
If you’re in the US, we’re talking about actual gelatine jelly (Jell-O), not jam (why y’all gotta be so confusing?).
You have two options with the jelly, you can either make it and let it set, then chop it into pieces or, as some people do, you can pour the runny jelly mixture over the sponge cake and let it soak in. That’ll give you a much wetter/softer trifle though, so keep that in mind.
If you’re setting the jelly, remember to make it the day before you want to assemble the trifle, so it has time to set properly and allow you to cut it into cubes.
Some people like to drizzle the sponge layers with alcohol such as sherry. You could also use any kind of fruit liqueur.
Dairy Free Trifle
To make this dairy free, you’ll need to make a dairy free custard or buy a premade dairy free custard. I haven’t tested the recipe below with dairy free alternatives, but if you want to try it I would recommend using a df milk alternative, and use coconut cream in place of the cream, or use extra dairy free milk and increase the cornflour by 10-20g to make sure it thickens. Alternatively, you could make a custard using custard powder.
Top the trifle with whipped coconut cream, if you like.
Egg Free Trifle
Making the trifle egg free is a little trickier. You’ll need to make a custard powder custard, or buy a vegan custard alternative if you can. You will also need to use an egg-free cake recipe. Something like this gluten free vanilla “crazy cake” should do the trick.
How to Make Gluten Free Trifle
The bowl you choose to assemble it in will determine how large your trifle ends up. The recipe below fits my trifle bowl which is quite large – 3L capacity. In our house, we like to eat dessert for breakfast, so there is literally no such thing as a trifle that’s too big.
If your bowl is much smaller you can always halve the recipe.
There are a few components here that we’re making from scratch, but the good news is that some of them can be made in advance.
Sponge: Can be made a day or two in advance and stored in an airtight container, or made weeks in advance and frozen. Thaw the sponge for a few hours before assembling the trifle.
Custard: Can be made a day or two before, and stored in the fridge.
Jelly: Can be made 2-3 days before.
Strawberries: Can be prepared a few hours before assembling the trifle, or the day before. Just keep in mind that they continue to soften and more juice will come out the longer they are left. If you don’t mind the strawberries being squishier/a little more like a puree, you can freeze the macerated strawberries and thaw before using. It can help to chop the strawberries a bit bigger, as they won’t soften as quickly.
Making a Gluten Free Trifle Sponge Cake
Making a sponge cake of any kind can be a little intimidating, but don’t let it scare you, each of the steps is simple and if you follow the instructions you’ll end up with a lovely light gluten free vanilla sponge cake.
The recipe below makes a little more cake than you will probably need for your trifle, but I find it easier to mix a full-sized sponge cake recipe, and this also gives you some wiggle room if you do over-mix the batter and deflate it a bit, as you will still end up with enough cake, even if it is a little on the denser side.
Start by preparing the cake pans – spray them with cooking oil spray (or brush with butter) and place a circle of baking paper on the bottom. Then mix together a little flour and caster sugar, pop that into the first tin, and swirl it around to coat the sides of the pan. Tap it out into the second pan, and repeat, tipping out any excess flour mixture when you’re done.
To make the sponge, we start by heating the eggs, sugar and vanilla over a water bath. If you’re not familiar with using a water bath, this is easier than it sounds, all you need is a pot of gently simmering water (a thermometer is also helpful but not essential), and I have full instructions in the recipe card.
If you really don’t want to do this step, it’s all good, just make sure your eggs are at room temperature before you start. To do that, pop the eggs (in their shells!) into a bowl of hot water and leave them to sit for 10-15 minutes.
The warmer the eggs – the more volume they will create when they’re whipped.
Once the eggs are warm, you can whip them until they are thick and pale, and then gently fold in the sifted dry ingredients.
Then you’ll pour the batter into the prepared pans, give them a quick bang on the benchtop to pop any large air bubbles, and bake them until they’re lightly golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan.
Making the GF Custard
Making the custard for the trifle is the same basic method as making any custard.
The milk, cream and half of the sugar get heated until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture just comes to a boil. While it’s heating, the eggs, the rest of the sugar and some cornflour (aka cornstarch) get whisked until they’re smooth and creamy.
Once the milk mixture has come to a boil, it gets poured gradually over the eggs to temper them. When it’s all added and combined, it all goes back into the pan and gets brought back to the boil.
It will thicken quickly, and then needs to be whisked and cooked for another minute or two. Then it can be poured back into the (cleaned) bowl and the vanilla mixed in.
To stop it from forming a skin on the surface, cover the custard with a piece of plastic wrap directly on top. Chill it until you’re ready to assemble to trifle.
Making the Jelly
Making the jelly is as simple as following the directions on the packet, but I do have a couple of tips.
- To make the jelly set faster, use half boiling water (to dissolve the jelly crystals) and then add the other half of the water as cold water. This will help the mixture cool faster, and set faster.
- Set the jelly in a lightly oiled dish, this will make it easier to spoon out the cut jelly cubes into the trifle.
- If you want to pour the jelly over the sponge, rather than setting it, let it thicken up to a syrup-y consistency first.
Preparing the Vanilla Macerated Strawberries
This is super straightforward, just wash and hull the strawberries (I love using this handy strawberry hulling tool to make quick work of it), then chop or slice the berries and mix them with the icing sugar and vanilla. Then they just need to sit in the fridge while the sugar draws out some of the strawberry juices.
Assembling the Trifle
Start by cutting the gluten free sponge (or your gf cake of choice) into cubes. The size of the cubes will determine some of the texture of your trifle – smaller chunks will absorb more moisture and become squishier, bigger chunks will absorb some liquid but still stay cakey in the middle.
Then whip some cream and fold that into the custard. This lightens the texture – you can skip it if you like thicker custard. You can also fold the whipped cream into store-bought custard if you like.
Then just start layering your trifle! I went: sponge, 1/3 of the berries, 1/2 the custard, all of the jelly, more sponge, 1/3 of the berries, the rest of the custard, then more berries. You may need to adjust the amounts, depending on the size of your bowl.
At this stage, you can cover the trifle and refrigerate it until you’re ready to serve.
Then all that’s left to do is add more whipped cream on top, and decorate however you like – a few more strawberries, grated chocolate, sprinkles… you get the idea.
For the Sponge*
- 5 whole eggs
- 1 egg yolk
- 200g caster sugar
- 200g gluten free flour blend
- 1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if you use a gf flour blend that contains a gum ingredient)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla paste
- 1 Tablespoon gf flour + 1 Tablespoon caster sugar, extra for preparing cake pans
- OR use 1 large store-bought gluten free sponge cake
For the Custard
- 6 egg yolks
- 2 whole eggs
- 750ml (3 cups) milk
- 250ml (1 cup) whipping cream
- 200g sugar
- 65g cornflour (cornstarch)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla paste
- OR use 1 - 1.5L of ready-made custard
For the jelly
- 1 packet strawberry jelly crystals
For the Macerated Strawberries
- 750g fresh strawberries
- 3-4 tablespoons icing sugar (depending on sweetness of berries)
- 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste
- 500ml whipping cream
Please see the notes below to see what components you can make in advance. My own preferred preparation timeline is to make the sponge, custard and jelly the day before assembly, prepare the strawberries 1-2 hours before, then put it all together and serve it later the same day, or the following day.
Make the Sponge Cake
Heat oven to 180°C.
Prepare the cake pans: Spray two 20cm (8") round cake pans with cooking oil spray, or brush with melted butter). Line the bottoms with a circle of non-stick baking paper. Combine the 1 tablespoon of gluten free flour and 1 tablespoon of caster sugar in a small bowl. Pour it into the first cake pan, and swirl it around to coat the sides of the pan. Tip it out into the second pan, and repeat. Tip out any remaining flour/sugar mixture, and bang each pan upside down over the sink to remove any excess.
Sift together the gluten free flour and xanthan gum, and whisk to combine well.
Bring 1" of water to a simmer in a saucepan that is just big enough to sit the bowl of a stand mixer, (or a large heatproof bowl, if using a handheld electric mixer) on top, ensuring that the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water. Place the whole eggs, egg yolk, caster sugar and vanilla into the bowl, and place the bowl over the water. Stir constantly until the egg mixture is warm and the sugar is mostly dissolved (it should be around 40°C if you have a candy thermometer). If you prefer to skip this step, make sure your eggs are warm before you start, by placing the eggs (in their shells) into a bowl of hot tap water for 10-15 minutes. Then crack them into the mixer bowl, add the sugar and vanilla, and continue with the next step.
Once the eggs are warm, whip them until they are thick and pale and make a thick ribbon when you lift the beaters. This takes about 10 minutes at medium-high speed in a stand mixer, but may take a little longer with an electric hand-held beater.
Gently fold in the sifted dry ingredients in three-four additions. I like to use a large wire whisk to do this, as it doesn't pop as many of the air bubbles. A large metal spoon or silicone spatula will also do the trick.
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and then give them a tap on the benchtop to pop any large air bubbles.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until they're lightly golden and pulling away from the sides of the pan.
Allow to cool for 30 minutes in the pans, then slide a spatula around the edges to loosen them, and tip the sponges out and place right-side-up on a wire rack to finish cooling. Wrap with plastic wrap and store in an airtight container at room temperature for 1-2 days, or in the freezer for a month or two.
Make the Custard
Combine the milk, cream and roughly half (don't worry about measuring, just guess half-ish) of the sugar in a large saucepan. Stir well, then heat until just starting to boil.
Whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs, the remaining half of the sugar and the sifted cornflour in a large heatproof bowl until smooth and creamy.
When the milk mixture is ready, pour it into the egg mixture a small amount at a time, stirring in between additions.
Return the custard to the saucepan, and return it to medium-high heat. Stir constantly, making sure to scrape along the bottom of the pan, until the mixture begins to boil. It will start to thicken quickly. Reduce the heat and continue to cook for another 1-2 minutes, or until it has no starchy flavour when you taste it (take it off the heat while you test it, and be careful not to burn your tongue!)
When it's done, pour it into another large bowl (or wash out the first bowl and use that) and whisk in the vanilla. Cover by placing plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard (this will prevent a film from forming on the surface).
To cool it faster, place the bowl into a sink of cold water, with the water coming 1/2 to 3/4 of the way up the side of the bowl (add ice to the water if you have it). Once the custard is no longer hot, you can put it into the fridge.
Make the Jelly
Make the jelly according to the packet instructions. Pour into a small dish or cake pan that has been lightly greased with an unflavoured vegetable oil or cooking oil spray. Chill until set.
Prepare the Strawberries
Wash and drain the strawberries, then hull and chop them into chunks or slices (I like to do a combination of both). Leave out a few whole strawberries to decorate the trifle later, if you like.
Combine the strawberries with the icing sugar and vanilla in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
To Assemble the Trifle
Whip half (250ml) of the whipping cream just until soft peaks form. Fold the cream into the custard to lighten it (you can still do this with store-bought custard, if you like, or skip it).
Cut the sponge cake into cubes. Start with one cake, you may not need the second one, depending on the size of your bowl and how thick you make your trifle layers.
Slice the jelly into cubes.
Begin layering the trifle into your bowl. I did a layer of sponge, then around 1/3 of the strawberries (drizzle some of the strawberry liquid from the bottom of the bowl over the sponge, if you want) then half the custard, the jelly cubes, then more sponge, strawberries and the remaining custard. Spoon the remaining strawberries on top. At this stage, you can cover the trifle with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Just before serving, whip the remaining 250ml of cream, swirl it on top of the trifle, and decorate with extra strawberries if you like.
Any leftover trifle will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days (if you don't eat it all for breakfast... no? Just me?).
*The sponge recipe makes two 8" cakes, you may not need both depending on the size of your bowl. The remaining sponge can be frozen for use at a later date.
I made this trifle in a 3L capacity trifle bowl, which is quite large. If you only have smaller bowls, you may want to make it in two bowls, or you can halve the custard and fruit recipes. I don't recommend halving the sponge cake recipe, it's easier to make a larger sponge than a smaller one. You will likely have cake left over, so you can freeze it for your next trifle, or eat it with any leftover cream or custard.
Instead of making the components, you can use a store-bought gluten free cake and 1 - 1.5L of thick custard (check that it is gluten free).
Make in Advance:
The sponge cake can be made 1-2 days in advance, or up to a month beforehand and frozen.
The custard can be made the day before assembly. Jelly can be made 2-3 days before.
Fruit layer alternatives:
- Any combination of fresh berries, rinsed and dried, or fresh tropical or stone fruits, rinsed, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces.
- Any kind of tinned/canned fruit in syrup or juice - peaches or fruit salad are popular choices. Drain the liquid from the fruit, you can also save the liquid to drizzle onto the sponge layers.
- Frozen fruit: Thaw and drain before using. Again, you can reserve the liquid to drizzle onto the sponge.