Zuppa inglese (Italian Trifle)

Zuppa inglese (Italian Trifle)

In dessert, Emilia-Romagna, Toscana by Frank Fariello35 Comments

Zuppa inglese, literally “English soup”, is actually neither English nor a soup. It is a classic Italian dessert, but the name is apt nevertheless. Its texture is very reminiscent of the bread-thickened soups so typical of the cookery of central Italy, only sweet and cool rather than savory and hot—a kind of cousin to the more familiar tiramisù and an even closer cousin to the much less known Tuscan zuccotto. And while the origins of this dish are disputed, it bears a strong resemblance to the English trifle.

It is actually quite simple to make, but makes a great impression, especially when served in a large glass trifle bowl. In its classic incarnation, it consists of layers of pan di Spagna (sponge cake) moistened with a red liqueur called Alchermes (also spelled Alkermes) alternating with crema pasticcera, pastry cream. It can be served just as is or topped with fruit or sliced almonds or other decorative foods (see Notes). Let it chill for a few hours and serve. It is sure to be a big hit—I love it and I don’t even care that much for sweets—perfect for a dinner party for a crowd.

Ingredients

Makes enough for a crowd

For the crema pasticcera:

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 750g (3 cups) sugar
  • 75g (1/2 cup) flour
  • 1 liter (4 cups) milk
  • Grated zest of 1/2 a lemon
  • 75g (1/2 cup) unsweetened cocoa (or equivalent in chocolate, broken up)
  • 2-3 spoonfuls of sugar (optional)
  • Milk, q.b.
  • 1 kilo (2 lbs.) sponge cake or pound cake (or ladyfingers)
  • Alchermes or other liqueur(s), q.b.  (see Notes)

For the topping (optional):

  • Berries
  • Sour cherries (amarene)
  • Sliced almonds

Directions

Step 1: Make the crema pasticcera:  In a standing mixer bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until smooth and the mixture forms ‘ribbons’ as the whisk rotates. Then add the flour slowly, bit by bit, into the mixture until fully incorporated.

Meanwhile, heat the milk over moderate heat until hot, almost but not quite at the boil—you will see little bubbles just beginning to form around the edge of the pot. Take the milk off the heat and drizzle it, little by little, into the mixer bowl.

Now pour the whole thing from the bowl into the pot and put it over very gentle heat, mixing continuously with a whisk or wooden spoon. After a while, it should begin to thicken. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens to the point where it coats a spoon nicely. Remove from the heat, stir in the grated lemon zest, and let the mixture cool.

Step 2: Melt the chocolate: Add the cocoa to a small pot with the sugar. Over the moderate flame, add milk, bit by bit, until the mixture turns to a thick but pourable paste.

Step 3: Mise en place: It is now time to arrange all the elements of the dish so you can assemble your dessert. Pour the crema pasticcera into two bowls, with a bit more in one of the bowls. In the bowl containing the lesser half of the crema, whisk in the chocolate paste until fully incorporated. In a small bowl, pour a good bit of your liqueur(s). Now take your sponge cake or pound cake and slice it into 1 cm (1/2 inch) slices. Now you are ready to put things all together. Prepare whatever topping you have it mind.

Zuppa inglese

Step 4: Assemble the dish: Take trifle bowl or other serving container large enough to hold all the ingredients and cover the bottom with a thin layer of the plain crema. Make a layer of cake slices, breaking them up as needed to make a complete layer, like so:

Now drizzle over a bit of the liqueur. No need to drown it. In fact, it helps to use a pastry brush so the slices don’t get too soaked. Then add a layer of the chocolate crema.

Repeat making layers in this way until you have run out of ingredients or filled your bowl. End with a layer of the plain crema. Arrange your topping if you want one: sliced strawberries, as pictured above, or sliced almonds or sour cherries or other sorts of berries are all very nice.

Step 5: Rest: Place the bowl in the fridge and let the zuppa inglese rest for a good few hours. Some recipes call for as little as an hour and as much as a whole day. To my mind, 2-3 hours is probably the minimum to allow the flavors to meld and the crema and cake layers to adhere properly. Like a tiramisù, the dish will change in texture the longer it rests, getting softer over time. It’s a matter of taste, really, at what point it is at its best.

Zuppa inglese (resting)

Step 6: Serving: It is best not to serve this dish right out of the fridge. Take it about 30-60 minutes before you want to serve it, to let it return almost to room temperature so you can better appreciate its flavors.

Notes

As mentioned, zuppa inglese is a pretty simple dessert anyone can make, assuming you use store-bought sponge cake or pound cake. The only tricky part really is thickening the crema; you need to heat it slowly enough that you cook the flour, while making sure that the eggs don’t curdle. Stir constantly, scraping the bottom of the pot all over, and keep the mixture below the boil. If at any point you sense that things might be getting out of hand, remove the pot from the heat and add a bit of cold milk or cream to cool things off.

Alchermes is a liqueur prepared by infusing neutral spirits with sugar, spices, herbs and flavoring agents. Its most striking characteristic is its scarlet color, obtained by the addition of a small parasitic insect called “kermes” (aka cochineal) from which the drink derives its name. It gives this dish its characteristic color and a special flavor, but it is rarely found outside Italy, as far as I know, but it can apparently be ordered from this online site. Recipes vary on the substitutes they recommend. If color does not matter to you, I rather like amaretto mixed with a bit of rum. Rum alone would also do well. La cucina italiana website calls for vin santo, a typical Tuscan sweet fortified wine. I imagine sweet Marsala, while not typical, would also be nice. Mario Batali recommends sassolino or mandorla amara liqueurs, while Marcella Hazan recommends a mixture of rum, cognac, Drambuie and Cherry Herring. Kyle Philips of About Italian Food recommends any aromatic liqueur such as Strega or amaretto. And for the ambitious, in his classic The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, Giuliano Bugialli provides a recipe to make your own Alchermes.

In some versions, the zuppa inglese in made in bowl that you line entirely with liqueur-laced cake. To serve, the bowl is inverted onto a serving plate, creating a ‘dome’ that is very similar in appearance to the Tuscan zuccotto. Personally, I prefer this version, which is much easier—no risk of accidents!—and, to my mind, even prettier if you use a glass trifle bowl as pictured above. And for an even more elegant presentation, you can also prepare individual portions of zuppa inglese in fluted ice cream tulip bowls.

The origins of zuppa inglese, as mentioned, are in some dispute but according to both of the most common stories it is a recreation of the English trifle. One story has it that the dish originated in 19th century Tuscany which, perhaps not by coincidence, was the period when the “Grand Tour” was at its height. (Think Room With A View.) It was the attempt by the Italian cook of one English ex pat family living in Fiesole, outside Florence, at recreating the English trifle. Another story has it that the 16th century Duke of Este, having visited the Elizabethan court, had his cooks recreate the English trifle he had tasted there. Giuliano Bugialli contests both accounts and says that the name is a reference to the red color of Alchermes, which reminded people of the red in the English flag. I tend to believe the first story—or something like it—is the most likely to be true, in part because the trifle did not come to have its current form until at least the 17th century.

Zuppa inglese (Italian Trifle)

Rating: 51

Prep Time: 1 hour

Cook Time: 2 hours

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: Enough for a crowd

Zuppa inglese (Italian Trifle)

Ingredients

  • 75g (1/2 cup) unsweetened cocoa (or equivalent in chocolate, broken up)
  • 2-3 spoonfuls of sugar (optional)
  • Milk, q.b.
  • 1 kilo (2 lbs.) sponge cake or pound cake (or ladyfingers)
  • Alchermes or other liqueur(s), q.b. (see Notes)
  • For the crema pasticcera:
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 750g (3 cups) sugar
  • 75g (1/2 cup) flour
  • 1 liter (4 cups) milk
  • Grated zest of 1/2 a lemon!For the topping (optional):
  • Berries
  • Sour cherries (amarene)
  • Sliced almonds

Directions

  1. Step 1: Make the crema pasticcera: In a standing mixer bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until smooth and the mixture forms 'ribbons' as the whisk rotates. Then add the flour slowly, bit by bit, into the mixture until fully incorporated.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the milk over moderate heat until hot, almost but not quite at the boil—you will see little bubbles just beginning to form around the edge of the pot. Take the milk off the heat and drizzle it, little by little, into the mixer bowl.
  3. Now pour the whole thing from the bowl into the pot and put it over very gentle heat, mixing continuously with a whisk or wooden spoon. After a while, it should begin to thicken. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens to the point where it coats a spoon nicely. Remove from the heat, stir in the grated lemon zest, and let the mixture cool.
  4. Step 2: Melt the chocolate: Add the cocoa to a small pot with the sugar. Over the moderate flame, add milk, bit by bit, until the mixture turns to a thick but pourable paste.
  5. Step 3: Mise en place: It is now time to arrange all the elements of the dish so you can assemble your dessert. Pour the crema pasticcera into two bowls, with a bit more in one of the bowls. In the bowl containing the lesser half of the crema, whisk in the chocolate paste until fully incorporated. In a small bowl, pour a good bit of your liqueur(s). Now take your sponge cake or pound cake and slice it into 1 cm (1/2 inch) slices. Now you are ready to put things all together. Prepare whatever topping you have it mind.
  6. Step 4: Assemble the dish: Take trifle bowl or other serving container large enough to hold all the ingredients and cover the bottom with a thin layer of the plain crema. Make a layer of cake slices, breaking them up as needed to make a complete layer, like so:
  7. Now drizzle over a bit of the liqueur. No need to drown it. In fact, it helps to use a pastry brush so the slices don't get too soaked. Then add a layer of the chocolate crema.
  8. Repeat making layers in this way until you have run out of ingredients or filled your bowl. End with a layer of the plain crema. Arrange your topping if you want one: sliced strawberries, as pictured above, or sliced almonds or sour cherries or other sorts of berries are all very nice.
  9. Step 5: Rest: Place the bowl in the fridge and let the zuppa inglese rest for a good few hours. Some recipes call for as little as an hour and as much as a whole day. To my mind, 2-3 hours is probably the minimum to allow the flavors to meld and the crema and cake layers to adhere properly. Like a tiramisù, the dish will change in texture the longer it rests, getting softer over time. It's a matter of taste, really, at what point it is at its best.
  10. Step 6: Serving: It is best not to serve this dish right out of the fridge. Take it about 30-60 minutes before you want to serve it, to let it return almost to room temperature so you can better appreciate its flavors.

Substitutes for Alchermes: If color does not matter to you, I rather like amaretto mixed with a bit of rum. Rum alone would also do well. La cucina italiana website calls for vin santo, a typical Tuscan sweet fortified wine. I imagine sweet Marsala, while not typical, would also be nice. Mario Batali recommends sassolino or mandorla amara liqueurs, while Marcella Hazan recommends a mixture of rum, cognac, Drambuie and Cherry Herring. Kyle Philips of About Italian Food recommends any aromatic liqueur such as Strega or amaretto. And for the ambitious, in his classic The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, Giuliano Bugialli provides a recipe to make your own Alchermes.

http://memoriediangelina.com/2012/03/11/zuppa-inglese/
Frank FarielloZuppa inglese (Italian Trifle)

Comments

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  3. Enzo Sultini

    Just wanted you to know….
    I have been thinking of nothing but making a mountain of Biscotti.
    I went to your “Search” box and typed it “Biscotti”
    The answer that came up? “Tortelli di Zucca”!
    I SO need a recipe for Biscotti. Coffee is all made, ready to dunk the biscotti into.
    Ciao!

  4. Enzo Sultini

    Congratulations on having what is easily the best cooking web page I have seen thus far.
    Reading your recipes bring me back to my Mother’s kitchen some 50-55 years ago. I SO wish I had paid more attention to her work in the kitchen. Your recipes bring me there today!
    One question…. I do a LOT of web surfing, all reading and learning about food. While perusing the recipe for “Zuppa Inglese”, I noticed a few lines where the ingredient is listed, with “q.b.” I have never seen that before. What does it stand for?

    As an aside, I was also looking for a recipe for “Gallani” or “Crostoli”. It is a recipe from the Veneto region, sometimes made with “grappa”. I have bought “Angel Wings” from different bakeries, but none come close to what my Mother used to make. Are you familiar with the recipe? Will you be posting it soon? It is usually made around Christmas, but can and is served any time of the year.

    Again, thank you for a fabulous web page!!!

    1. Frank Fariello

      Thank you, Enzo, for your kind and flattering words!

      To answer your question, “q.b.” stands for “quanto basta”, literally “as much as is needed”. A very common Italian cooking term which corresponds, more or less, to the English phrase “to taste”. (See the Glossary.) I’ve replaced this in my more recent recipes!

      To answer your question, I hadn’t heard of gallani but after checking out my cyber-friend Alessandra’s fabulous blog Dinner in Venice, I realize that that is simply local name (along with crostoli) for what I would call “chiacchiere”. Angelina made them, too, and you can find the recipe here. Alessandra also has a version on her site, which may be closer to what your Mom used to make.

      Thanks again for your readership!

      1. enzo sultini

        Thank you for your reply and the link to the recipe. From the look of the photos, it sure looks like the same recipe. I got a kick out of the alternate name for them. I think “chiacchere” translates into…..”small talk”! Again, mille grazie for you assistance. I will make them very soon!

  5. Anne

    It sounds like the recipe I had when living with an Italian family 45years ago. They came from the Abruzzo region, it was so delicious, I will be making this for my next family party! Anne B

  6. Anon

    Hello, great recipe but i wanted to know if there are any non-alcoholic substitutes for the liqueur? or if the recipe can be made without soaking the cakes at all?? Thanks :)

    1. Frank Fariello

      I’m sure the recipe works just fine without the liqueur. You could also use a fruit juice (cranberry would work well) or coffee.

  7. Silvia

    I was looking for alchermes all over the place for zuppa inglese, but could not find it in the US, so I found a recipe for it and almost started making it. Thank you for the link to buy it. You made a beautiful dessert there, lovely presentation and great recipe.

  8. Asmita

    This does remind me of Trifle. The look and even the way it's made. I love the history behind it. I would love to make this for my family!

  9. Frank

    Quite right. I see that now. And a bit of Googling shows that it is not uncommon as a food colorant. Apparently there are ways to purchase it online.

  10. Rob Gardiner

    Bugialli's recipe does indeed call for COCHINEAL, which is an alternate name for the ground up red insects. Once I find cochineal, I will give his recipe a try.

  11. drick perry

    oh wow, I can only imagine the flavors, sounds like a beautiful blend for sure… I know I will enjoy licking the cream bowl as it doesn't sound too sweet at all – love the history too

  12. Simona

    Very nice, Frank. I wonder why alchermes is so difficult to find here. As a teenager I was allowed to make crema and then zuppa inglese with panettone, the one you buy on sale after the Holidays. My mother did not like alcohol, so I would use coffee to infuse the panettone. I totally agree with you on two points: drizzling the liqueur. Pan di Spagna is really a sponge. And taking it out of the fridge ahead of time.

  13. Anonymous

    In new year's dinner I made something similar. But I used some almond cookies smashed in some of the layers and Oporto wine instead of liquour. Madeira wine would be fine, too. In the midlle layer I add some berrys, specially near the glass. I finish with a layer of mascarpone mixed with some sugar (home made chantilly is also good), berrys all around the bowl and small pieces of toasted almonds in the midlle. It was very nice…But I will try your recipe specially because of the chocolate crema. Thanks. Beatriz Tavares

  14. Dianeuk

    If it is originally an Italian dish why is it called english soup? Anyway I really don't care who invented it it is just delicious to eat and relatively easy to make….

  15. Claudia

    I wish I had known about alchermes when I was in Italy – but will be checking it out. I tend to believe this came before the Trifle – but I am prejudiced. And I love a blog post that references Room With View! This is very different from my mother's – and am thinking this would make a splash on Easter Sunday! Welcome spring with dessert!

  16. Ciao Chow Linda

    I'm a big fan of zuppa inglese too Frank, and your version looks terrific. I have never been able to find alchermes here in the states, so thanks for the link. Unfortunately, it's out of stock right now.

  17. PolaM

    Wow that looks like a lot of zuppa inglese! but it looks so good, I'm sure it disappears in minutes!

  18. anne

    A wonderfull recipe,easy to make and also for a lot of people.
    I for myself made it several times always in different variations.
    Love from the netherlands.

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