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)
1 kilo (2 lbs.) sponge cake or pound cake (or ladyfingers)
Alchermes or other liqueur(s), q.b. (see Notes)
For the topping (optional):
Sour cherries (amarene)
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.
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 4: 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.
Step 5: 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, this 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 this dish, 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.