I made the platinum jubilee pudding … and what a faff it was

Jemma Melvin, the winner of the competition to find a pudding to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee, has called her lemon swiss roll and amaretti trifle a “humble” dish. But as I stand in my kitchen in the early morning light, wearily contemplating her recipe, it seems anything but modest.

For starters, there’s its size. “Serves 20,” I read. Should I swap my glass bowl for a bucket? It’s also ridiculously complicated, requiring the cook to make not only jelly and custard but also swiss rolls, lemon curd, amaretti biscuits, a “chunky” mandarin coulis and jewelled white chocolate “bark”.

Melvin insists that it’s fine to cheat. Buy a jar of lemon curd, a box of Italian biscuits and a tub of ready-made custard, she urges nervous cooks. To do this, however, would render the whole exercise pointless, wouldn’t it? You might as well buy a Colin the Caterpillar cake from M&S and have done with it.

Jemma Melvin in an apron smiling and holding a bowl of her lemon trifle
Be it ever so humble: Jemma Melvin with the trifle that beat 5,000 desserts to become the official jubilee pudding. Photograph: Nicky Johnston/PA

I begin at 9am, just as the pips sound on Radio 4. Swiss roll? This, at least, I can do. Alas, I have no baking parchment – to be more accurate, the baking parchment has fallen down the back of the cupboard and cannot be retrieved except by drone – so I lightly oil some greaseproof paper and line a tin with this instead. Then I beat the eggs and sugar, add the self-raising flour and stick it in the oven. While it’s baking, I make the lemon curd, something else I can do in my sleep (my star dish is meringue with lemon curd).

In this case, the curd is the swiss roll’s filling, and if you’ve never made one before, honestly, it’s easy: you just warm the egg yolks, sugar, butter and lemon juice in a bain marie and stir until it thickens. By 10 o’clock, then, I’ve got some lovely, sticky slices of Swiss roll with which to line the bottom of my bowl, as instructed. There are gaps, which makes me nervous. Melvin is opposed to gaps. But when I press on the sponge with my hands, they disappear, no harm done.

Next, the St Clement’s jelly. I toy with using orange Chivers, a packet of which I unaccountably find in my pantry. In the end I go for it, making it properly with gelatine leaves and a combination of orange and lemon juice. Once it’s cool, I pour it over the swiss roll and leave it to set, which will take about three hours, during which time I can make the coulis and the bark.

The coulis deploys tinned mandarin oranges, which, for good reasons, I haven’t eaten since I was at school (I once tipped a disastrously sloppy chocolate pudding I’d decorated with tinned mandarins and Dream Topping in a home economics lesson all over a man on the top deck of my bus home). You thicken it with arrowroot, an ingredient that the recipe – warning: it’s badly written and not quite accurate – springs on you unexpectedly; I had to use cornflour instead. The white chocolate for the “bark” must be melted and spread over a baking tray. You then dot it with mixed peel and stick it in the fridge until it hardens.

Rachel Cooke puts amaretti biscuit onto the sponge base
Rachel Cooke layers the sponge base with amaretti biscuits. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

At 3 o’clock it’s time to put the whole thing together. It goes like this. First, cover the jelly with custard, and the custard with a layer of amaretti biscuits (I do cheat now, because life is too short to make amaretti biscuits). Next, add the coulis, followed by a layer of whipped cream, and finally the bark, which is broken into shards and arranged on top. This last flourish is, I think, a bad example of lily-gilding. Standing in the cream, the chocolate soon begins to droop, and I know without even tasting it that it won’t stand up to the citrus flavours.

The finished pudding looks – am I allowed to say this? – quite magnificent: the layers are distinct; I’ve avoided the dreaded seepage. But when I serve it, the reviews are mixed. We think it’s a bit boring and too sweet. The recipe was inspired by the lemon posset that was served at the Queen’s wedding breakfast, but possets are much easier to make and so much more tangy and sharp than this trifle. It wants for a kick. Maybe the sponge should be soaked in limoncello?

Rachel Cooke puts triangles of jewelled ‘bark’ – white chocolate and candied peel – on top of the trifle
Rachel tops the dessert with shards of jewelled ‘bark’ – white chocolate and candied peel. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

And what a faff! The work-pleasure ratio is all out of kilter here. The organisers of the competition – Fortnum & Mason is the prime mover – believe that, like the great Constance Spry’s coronation chicken before it, Melvin’s trifle will have staying power, that we’ll be making it for decades to come. But I’m not so sure. How is it any better than a sherry trifle, made with tipsy stale sponge and raspberry jam? The durability of coronation chicken lies not only in its sheer deliciousness but in its simplicity: the sauce is made with a very basic wine reduction, curry powder, apricots and some mayonnaise, nothing more.

But Mary Berry, Monica Galetti and all the other competition judges are right about one thing. Last Thursday, shortly before the Duchess of Cornwall announced the winner on BBC One, a food historian called Regula Ysewijn, who was dressed for the Blitz, reminded viewers that our story is written in our food; that each decade comes with its defining dishes, and that these may tell us more about ourselves than we imagine, not all of it good. Coronation chicken was born in extreme austerity. In 1953, wartime rationing had yet to end. Its flavour belies the relative ordinariness of its ingredients.

To make Melvin’s trifle, on the other hand, you will need more than a kilogram of sugar, 13 eggs and a litre of double cream. I don’t want to be a total killjoy. I know it’s for a special occasion. But this is a pudding, outrageously sweet and slightly insipid, for a nation that may have lost sight of what the word treat really means.