Our quest to make all 16 of Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection dishes continues with his Strawberry Trifle recipe – the ultimate British summer classic.
Heston Blumenthal sure does like his trifles. They’re a regular fixture on his menu at the Hind’s Head, and many of us probably remember that fancy one with meringues he brought out for Waitrose to celebrate the Royal Wedding.
A strawberry trifle is probably the most quintessentially British dessert there is. And, with his regular work with Hampton Court Palace’s kitchens and passion for historical recipes, it’s the perfect candidate for Heston’s In Search of Perfection series.
On the show Heston, ever the Modernist, looks at everything from the centuries-old recipe for junket to the very latest techniques to develop an up-to-date interpretation of the dish.
With strawberries at their absolute best in British summertime, and with a full weekend free, we decided to tackle the two day challenge of making Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe from In Search of Perfection.
Recipes: Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe
Special Equipment: Trifle glasses, biscuit cutter, piping bag & nozzle, identically-sized baking trays
Special Ingredients: Rose petals, Gum Arabic, Angelica Twigs.
Time: 2 – 3 days
Serves: 6 – 8
Difficulty: Very Hard
Here’s what we’re aiming for, the Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe as it appears in the In Search of Perfection book:
And here’s the episode of In Search of Perfection where Heston makes his perfect strawberry trifle recipe:
Sourcing & Notes
The latter Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipes tend to include at least a few obscure or hard-to-find ingredients. There aren’t all that many of these needed for Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe, perhaps because this is an English dish and uses domestically available ingredients.
Our problem ingredients this time were Gum Arabic (used for sticking sugar on to the dried rose petals – I forgot to buy both the gum and the roses, so no issues there) and “angelica twigs”. A search of Booths, Waitrose, M&S Food and the usual upmarket suspects failed to help us get our hands on these, so we just had to improvise. You’ll see.
With multiple complicated layers, Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe has a very long shopping list. The complementary multi-layered structure is, Heston observes, very similar to that of his iconic Black Forest Gateau recipe. However, where the BFG’s many components all share many of the same ingredients, each layer of the trifle is wildly different. Having eight different toppings doesn’t help matters. This is one of the more expensive recipes to shop for. Fun fact: Heston’s Perfection Trifle recipe uses FOUR different types of refined sugar and three types of alcohol.
Step 1: Black Olive Puree (Day 1)
I once read that black olives are generally too fragile and mushy to have their stones removed mechanically, so if you ever buy pitted black olives in a jar then they’re supposedly the green olives that have been dyed black. However I read that fact on twitter, so it’s anyone’s guess if it’s actually true.
Anyhow, since Heston’s ingredient list allows us to buy this cheap little jar of pre-pitted black olives, so we’re starting with one of the easiest but downright weirdest bits of Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe.
Rinse and refresh your black olives to get rid of excess brine…
… then just blitz them together with some icing sugar.
Since you aren’t using large quantities of either ingredient it’s best to use a smaller food processor, if you are fortunate enough to have one. We’re using the bowl of our very handy and much-loved Kenwood HB724. (Look closely and you can see the brutal scars ours sustained making the garam masala for Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe.
Reserve the puree in a piping bag in the fridge for the next day to finish the trifle with. Our top-tip for doing this is to put whatever bag you’re using into a mug and fold the edges over the outside. The mug will hold the bag in place and you should be able to easily scrape the contents from the bowl.
Step 2: Caramelised Almonds (Day 1)
And not just any almonds, but the super-expensive three-quid-a-bag-from-Sainsburys Marcona Almonds to form part of the garnish.
Measure out roughly equal weights of almonds and sugar.
Quarter the almonds, add to the pan with the sugar and stir constantly over a low heat until all the sugar has caramelised.
Transfer to a piece of baking parchment to cool then break into chunks ready for later (i.e. tomorrow).
Step 3: Comfits (Day 1)
This step didn’t go well at all.
For starters, we took massive exception to the way Heston wants you to do this. Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe comfit method, as outlined in the Further Adventures In Search of Perfection recipe book, goes roughly like this:
1. Empty & clean out a large, catering-size coffee can
2. Mount the coffee can onto the end of a cordless power drill
3. Use duct tape to gently press down the drill’s trigger, so that the drill (and coffee can) rotate at a very slow speed
4. Pour the caraway seeds into this makeshift tumbler
5. Bring a mixture of water, sugar and food colouring to a temperature of exactly 120°C, then cool
6. Using a pipette, slowly begin adding drops of the cooled, coloured sugar solution
7. Use a hairdryer to gently warm and dry seeds and the sugar solution
8. Keep doing this until all of the caraway seeds are evenly coated with hardened coloured sugar
9. Repeat steps 1 to 8 for both the coriander and fennel seeds, using different colours for each type of seed
Fuck that! I’ve gone to a lot of extremely daft lengths trying to recreate Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes, but this was far more than even I was prepared to undertake. At our house we’ve built vacuum chambers and smoking cages and makeshift tandoor ovens, all to make these insanely complicated Perfection recipes. But this time I chose to draw the line on pure principle (also, I wasn’t allowed).
Instead we decided to substitute a technique from another of his recipe books, Heston at Home: crystallisation.
It’s a slightly obscure technique, even amongst Heston recipes. We’ve used it to make a crispy chocolate coating for truffles, and also seen it used to make a potato sugar for Heston’s Potato Donuts recipe.
In each of the above cases a mixture of sugar and water is brought to a very precise temperature (145°C) before you dump in the chopped chocolate or mashed potato. We’ve even proved that this works with the addition of food colouring. As evidence, here’s a cake coated in crispy white chocolate, with food colouring added to the sugar solution, that I made for a birthday:
According to Heston this technique works because the addition of cold ingredients to an accurately heated sugar solution causes the liquid to “shock”, or “seize”, clumping around the chocolate. We figured this would work just as well with seeds as it would chocolate. Hmmmm.
It would’ve helped if we weren’t relying on these tired old bottles of Asda food colouring I found in the back of the baking cupboard. I really ought to have bought new ones, but the shopping list was already quite long and costly, so I made the mistake of cutting a corner here.
Add the water, sugar and food colouring to the pan, then heat to the required temperature, whisking constantly.
Remove the pan from the heat, add the seeds and keep whisking. After a few seconds the sugar will start to harden and crystalize.
If you are lucky, most of this crystalized sugar will be stuck to the outside of your seeds, roughly approximating the effect Heston is aiming for. If you’re unlucky you’ll have bald seeds and grainy clumps of coloured sugar. If you’re very unlucky you’ll have bald seeds and grainy clumps of sugar in assorted shades of muted brown. Thanks a bunch, naff old bottles of Asda food colouring!
We ended up with a mixture of all of the above. A few repeat attempts and fresher food colouring might have improved our results, but that’s both time consuming and expensive – Heston’s trifle garnish uses a full jar of caraway seeds for a single recipe.
Step 4: Caramelised Puff Pastry (Day 1)
Theoretically another easy step. You’re making this layer to go between the custard and the cream, providing a textural contrast.
Roll out some puff pastry really thinly, then press it between two sheets of baking parchment…
…and then between two identically-sized metal baking trays (use good ones that won’t warp in the heat of the oven).
Add some weights on top – heavy cans or pans are good, but actual weights from the garage / attic are even better (like these ones that I haven’t touched once in the past 6 years).
Heston tells you the puff pastry should be evenly brown and crisp after about 20 minutes. Perhaps our oven temp was wrong, but this took more like an hour – it was Saturday night and I stayed entertained reading the endless stream of texts asking why I wasn’t at the pub yet. I just had to stand staring at the oven and churning through chapter after chapter of Brandon Sanderson audio books, for a further 40 minutes before the puff pastry rounds looked ready and I could enjoy a brief bit of freedom.
Cut out the rounds of puff pastry while they’re still warm (they’ll be brittle and crack if you wait too long). Of course, check your pastry cutter against the serving glass to guarantee your rounds will be the right size,
Step 5: Caraway Biscuits (Day 1)
Heston Blumenthal sure does love his caraway. This citrusy seed is a common feature in a lot of his recipes, and a favourite flavour to add to chocolates, carrots and especially biscuits. Previously we’ve seen caraway biscuits on sale in Waitrose, served with ganache at the Mandarin Oriental and in recipe form in Heston at Home.
These biscuits are more or less the same as that recipe in Heston’s 2011 cookbook. And, like the puff pastry rounds, are being included to provide even more textural contrast in the finished trifle. Start by mixing together the dry ingredients.
After this cream butter and sugar.
There’s a lot of voodoo and freemasonry in baking that I don’t fully understand, but I gather doing things in this order stops the mixture becoming too wet, prevents the development of gluten, and results in a tighter crumb structure and a better overall biscuit.
This is why you also want to add those three egg yolks one at a time, waiting until each is fully incorporated before mixing in the next.
Bung the resulting damp slop into some clingfilm and place in the fridge to prevent that sticky, stretchy gluten developing. You’re always told to make a flattish lump, but we think thinner is better as it’ll chill quicker.
After a couple of hours (or overnight for us) place the chilled dough between two sheets of baking parchment and roll it out nice and thin. We froze half the dough for later use, so what you can see here is only half the full amount.
We made another error here. We thought we’d rolled it out thinly enough – it was certainly larger than our biggest baking sheet – but our biscuits still ended up thick and clumsy, rather than thin and dainty.
As with the puff pastry rounds, use a pastry cutter to make circles while the dough is still warm. You’ll have enough leftover biscuit to snack on for the next few days.
Step 6: Strawberry Juice (Day 2)
Oh, this is just ridiculous.
Macerate A KILO AND A HALF of fresh, ripe strawberries in FRUCTOSE SPECIFICALLY. Cover with clingfilm and place it over a bain marie for FOUR SOLID HOURS. (No stirring required).
At the end of this time you’ll have drawn out somewhere between 600 and 900ml of strawberry juice.
Strain the juice through a double layer of muslin (or our trusty sterile hair nets) and reserve for finishing the trifle.
Step 7: Strawberry Reduction (Day 2)
This’ll form a thick strawberry syrup that’ll be used in the finished trifle.
Simply measure out half of that whopping bowl of strawberry juice you just made, and boil it to a thick syrup. You’re looking for about a 90% reduction and it’ll take bloody ages.
If you over-reduce and the syrup sticks to the pan (my fault) add a tiny splash of water to loosen.
Step 8: Sherry Syllabub (Day 2)
In both show and book Heston states that the sherry is the most important part of his perfect trifle. The syllabub for Heston’s Perfect trifle recipe (i.e. the bit I grew up with thinking of as the slice of Swiss roll at the bottom) is where we’ll incorporate that sherry.
Mix it up with Vermouth and dry cider – the bottom layer is a veritable booze-fest.
You also need to add some unrefined caster sugar. Heat the booze-mixture gently until the sugar dissolves.
Infuse some lemon zest into the syllabub and leave to cool.
Step 9: Macerated Strawberries (Day 2)
Hull and halve your remaining strawberries. Quarter the rest. Macerate these in yet more fructose.
You need to be quite careful when choosing which of your strawberries to halve, and which ones to quarter. The halved strawberries are going to be pressed against the side of the glass, for slick presentation.
However, you’ll also need to put the jelly, olive, biscuit, custard, puff pastry and mascarpone cream layers all above the strawberries. Those other layers will all add to the height of the trifle, so cut your strawberry halves as short as you think you can get away with. It’d be humiliating if your cream ended up poking above the rim of the glass. The presentation would look dreadful and you’d embarrass yourself in front of the entire internet with your ineptness and lack of forethought. Ahem.
Step 10: Sponge & Fruit Layers (Day 2)
At long last it’s time to start bringing all these disparate elements together so they begin to resemble a traditional strawberry trifle.
Gently heat the lemon-infused syllabub and add bloomed gelatine.
Meanwhile crush up a load of trifle sponges / “lady fingers” Pour on the syllabub mixture and stir until you have a fairly thick mush.
Carefully spoon this mush into the bottom of your trifle glasses, taking extreme care not to smear the sides and ruin the presentation with cack-handedness. (Don’t worry if this does happen, though, as you’ve got 4 trifles to choose from and you can just take pictures of the “best side” – if you’re making these for your own Heston blog that is).
Now gently press the halved strawberries against the cut side of the glass. Fill the space in the centre with the remaining quartered strawberries.
Put the lot in the fridge for at least an hour to allow the gelatine in the syllabub to set.
Step 11: Saffron Custard (Day 2)
Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes have a reputation for decadent richness, and Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe is no exception. This custard is more or less all cream with only a tiny bit of milk, and a fearsome number of egg yolks.
Start by infusing the saffron into the double-cream-with-a-splash-of-milk mix over a gentle heat.
Meanwhile blend white caster sugar and a whole load of egg yolks until pale and thick.
Combine with the saffron cream and heat to a very specific 70°C for a very awkward 20 minutes. After that add bloomed gelatine and stir until dissolved.
By this point the day should be wearing on and you’ll be running out of both time and patience. Quickly cool the custard over ice then store with clingfilm pressed directly onto the surface (to stop a skin forming).
The custard needs to chill for at least 2 or 3 hours.
So, while you’re waiting…
Step 12: Strawberry Jelly (Day 2)
Take the other half of the strawberry jelly, reduce by half to intensify the flavours and then add yet more bloomed gelatine. Oh, and some orange flower water and a bit of lemon juice.
Chill rapidly over ice, then pour into the trifle glasses to cover the macerated strawberries and the syllabub.
Everything back in the fridge for the strawberry jelly to set. Say another hour or so. Yaaaaawn.
Step 13: Mascarpone Cream (Day 2)
Mix raw, yes RAW, egg yolks and sugar together to begin. (Actually, the raw eggs we made Heston’s Tiramisu recipe with didn’t kill us, but I’m still unsettled by this).
Beat in the Mascarpone until the mixture is smooth. Finally whip the cream fold in gently and then reserve the lot in a piping bag in the fridge for an hour to firm up.
Step 14: Candied Angelica (Day 2)
We had absolutely no luck finding any “Angelica Twigs”, as requested by Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe. In fact, if I’m honest, I don’t even know what this angelica stuff even is.
Not wanting our version to be inauthentic, we improvised as best we could to make candied Angelica.
Step 15: Final Assembly (Day 2)
This is quite complicated so you’ll want to have all of your mise nicely en-placed before you begin. We’re taking this page from the book as our inspiration.
First, get your condensation-covered triles from out the fridge.
Hey, remember that black olive puree way back from the beginning of Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe? Pipe a bit of that onto the set strawberry jelly in the trifle glasses. Try to pipe in a neat ring, or a haphazard one like I’ve done. Fill the centre of this ring with that super-sticky strawberry syrup.
Top with one of the caraway biscuits and press down gently, to spread the olive out. Hopefully your caraway biscuit won’t be as chunky as ours.
Spoon in the set custard and smooth out to the edges. The custard really is gorgeous. You might be tempted to make this layer slightly too thick. As you can see we’re on our way to a serious presentational error.
Top that with a disc of the caramelised puff pastry.
Finally, pipe on the mascarpone cream and decorate each trifle with the comfits (coriander, caraway and fennel seeds), almond brittle, candied rose petals and angelica (if using) and, in a bit of Heston Blumenthal gratuitousness, popping candy.
Congratulations! You’ve just made Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Sherry Trifle recipe from In Search of Perfection. Quick! Tuck in before that caraway biscuit goes soggy!
Sweet Lord above.
Okay, okay, okay. We ought to have known by now to trust Heston, but Christ this was good. If we’re gonna pick two words to describe it we’d say “complexity” and “harmony”.
There’s an awful lot going on in this trifle, with so many flavours in the mix. Which is only as you’d expect – that pile of ingredients near the top of this post doesn’t include every single item on the shopping list, and it still looks like far too much to fill four small trifle glasses.
And they all work perfectly together. Each mouthful is a rich, complex and almost bewildering array of flavours and textures.
We were really sceptical about the savoury comfits, but they work a treat. And while our last disastrous Heston Blumenthal Christmas Trifle was spoiled by the distraction of the popping candy, here it only adds to the genuine riot of flavour and texture.
The sherry really is important. That’s a standout flavour you’d omit at your peril. We can’t fault the inclusion of olives either. It’s hard to define exactly how their flavour benefits the overall dish, but it does (note: probably some sort of complimentary flavour compound kinda deal).
So is there anything we didn’t like? Well, the massive cooking and preparation time is an inescapable drawback. Two days solid work for a medium-sized glass of dessert is far too much effort. It’s difficult to justify the size and cost of the shopping list, too. You could serve this as a showpiece dessert, but it needs at least a couple of co-operative cooks who have two days free and a budget of about forty-five quid.
We did make a few mistakes with this one. I couldn’t help wonder if the missing angelica and the rose petals detracted from the dish we ate. We did try to incorporate some rosewater into the mascarpone cream to ensure we retained the flavour. Our caraway biscuit was humiliatingly big too, like finding a paving slab in your dessert glass. And let’s not even talk about how I cut the strawberries too tall and ended up with the cream spilling over the edge of the glass. It is quite embarrassing having to display such a crude-looking effort.
Summary: I think the only time I ever said anything halfway smart on this blog was when we talked about the mushrooms in the stock for Heston’s Perfect Fish Pie recipe. Those mushrooms are a tiny element, hidden amongst so many other flavours, but their inclusion illustrates how every last element of the dish is tweaked by Heston and his chefs (mainly the fearsomely talented duo of Kyle Connaughton and Chris Young) to create absolute perfection. In Heston’s Perfection recipes no flavour is ignored, and no effort is deemed too great, if it will improve the dish by even the tiniest fraction.
Heston’s Trifle recipe is another lesson in all of the above, and more. Whereas the Fish Pie uses mushrooms in a stock that’s then used to make a cream sauce, that’s then served alongside the fish it’s much easier to not notice their inclusion. With Heston’s In Search of Perfection Strawberry Trifle recipe you genuinely do get to taste all those elements at once.
The comfits, the sherry, the orange blossom in the jelly, the faint note of cider balancing the almondy syllabub. If you did deep and get a big enough spoonful you’ll be hit by all those flavours, and more, at once. It’s a ridiculously complex mouthful – an overwhelming assault of incredible flavour. Every bite has so much going on that you won’t be able to fully understand it, but you’ll like it.
We always say that if you only ever make one Heston Blumenthal In search of Perfection recipe it should be his Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese – the easiest but also the most noticeably exceptional. But, if you ever decided to make a second In Search of Perfection recipe, it should be Heston’s Perfect Trifle recipe.
We admit that it’s two days of gruelling work, and has an unreasonably long and expensive shopping list, but the results are more than worth it.
There’s no way we would ever consider making this recipe again. But, given how delicious it was, we’d love to enjoy more of the phenomenal combination of flavours and textures. So we’d probably:
- Use just one type of booze and one or two types of sugar
- Use just ladyfingers with some ground almonds in the syllabub, no gelatine
- Replace the expensive and time-consuming strawberry juice with some supermarket packet-jelly
- Keep the custard exactly the way it is
- Keep caraway biscuits and roll them extra thin, but skip the puff pastry
- Leave the egg out of the mascarpone cream, but add rosewater
- Freeze-dried Strawberries in the topping
Do all that and it’ll still be a very complicated dessert, but more manageable and less financially draining, too. And hopefully still just as delicious.
Sadly there’s only one decent link I could find showing how to make Heston’s Perfect Sherry Trifle recipe. All the rest are too far off-topic, sadly.
Like Trifle? Don’t like trifle? Ready to spend 2 days and nearly £50 making trifle? Let us know your thoughts on this and any of our other Heston Perfection experiments in the comments section below…