Philippa Sibley is one of Australia’s most highly regarded pastry chefs. In her hometown of Melbourne she’s sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Desserts”. She finds the title a bit naff, but it is accurate.

The chef’s career includes stints at Harveys and Le Gavroche in London (alongside chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White), plus local icons Est Est Est, Ondine, Luxe, Circa and several more. At present she’s putting together classics such as lemon tart and bombe Alaska at The European, but wherever she goes her elegant, multifaceted desserts inevitably become highlights, as essential to each dinner as good bread.

Speaking of bread: this trifle began life as a bread and butter pudding. Sibley’s brother is married to an Italian, who introduced her to pandoro, an Italian Christmas cake similar to panettone. She began using it to make an annual bread and butter pudding for Christmas, which morphed into a trifle one stinking hot year.

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“Trifle doesn’t blow my skirt up,” Sibley says in her typically straight-talking way. “But this combination, peaches and verbena, is something that I’ve loved since I worked in France [at La Côte Saint Jacques, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Paris].”

Verbena, a small edible shrub, is not sold at grocers or supermarkets but may be found around the city if you have a keen eye and a willingness to pluck from other peoples’ front gardens. Otherwise, seeds and young plants are available at nurseries, or you can just use vanilla instead.

Either way, a large part of this trifle’s appeal is in its festive look; the stack of star-shaped pandoro slices imitating a Christmas tree. At Sibley’s house, the dessert is made in advance and used as a colourful table centrepiece until it’s time for it to be eaten.

Philippa Sibley’s Christmassy Pandoro, Peach and Verbena Trifle
Preparation time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, plus cooling time
Serves 8

Ingredients

Cake
1 large store-bought pandoro (an Italian Christmas cake similar to panettone, available at Coles and Woolworths)
3 perfectly ripe white peaches or nectarines
3 perfectly ripe yellow peaches
300g caster sugar
2 punnets raspberries
1 jar raspberry jam
1 small bottle vin santo (an Italian dessert wine) or sweet sherry (optional)
300ml whipped cream
Candied almonds or toasted flaked almonds (optional)
Icing sugar (for dusting)

Verbena custard
600ml thickened cream
400ml milk
200g egg yolk (about 10)
160g caster sugar
30g custard powder
3–4 sprigs verbena, leaves picked (if you can’t find verbena, substitute 1 tbsp vanilla paste, or 1 vanilla pod, split and scraped with seeds retained)

Method
To make the custard, bring the cream and milk to boil in a medium saucepan and set aside.

Place the egg yolks in a heatproof bowl. Combine the sugar and custard powder in a small container, then whisk into the egg yolks by hand. Pour ⅓ of the cream-milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture and whisk to combine.

Pour the entire egg yolk mixture into the saucepan and cook over medium-low until the custard thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Watch the mixture carefully: it will cook very quickly. If you have a cooking thermometer, it should read 80°C.

Transfer to a large bowl (preferably metal), add the verbena leaves or vanilla paste or pod and whisk occasionally as the mixture cools. Once cool, strain into a bowl and refrigerate until needed.

Split the peaches and remove the stones. In a large pot, bring 1L water and caster sugar to boil. Add the peaches, cut side up, and reduce heat until barely simmering. Poach for 10–15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a tray, cut side down. Allow the peaches to cool, then slip off the skins and transfer to fridge.

To assemble the trifle, place a ring of peaches, cut-side down, around the perimeter of large glass bowl or other presentation dish. Dollop a large mass of custard into the middle of the ring, then place the largest slice of pandoro on top.

Brush the slice with raspberry jam and add whole raspberries in between the star-points of the slice. If the jam is too firm and hard to spread, warm it in a saucepan with a little water. If using vin santo or sherry, drizzle over the slice and finish with a generous layer of whipped cream.

Place a smaller pandoro slice onto the whipped cream. Add more jam, vin santo, custard and peaches, in that order. Raspberries can be added wherever you like, but as before tend to fit nicely between the star-points of the cake. Repeat this order for the final layer.

Finish with fresh raspberries, almonds (if using) and a dusting of icing sugar. Garnish with fresh verbena leaves and serve.

Note: verbena is not available at grocers or supermarkets but can be found in streets and gardens around Australia. Seeds and young plants are available from nurseries.