If you know a bit of Italian you may expect Zuppa Inglese to be listed as a soup in the starters section of the menu as it literally translates to “English Soup”.
But, in fact, it’s actually a delicious classic traditional Italian trifle that is made by layering delicate ladyfingers dipped in liqueur with smooth vanilla and chocolate pastry cream that is then set to perfection and dusted with cocoa powder. It’s a sinfully good dessert found in many authentic Italian cookbooks and restaurants.
Why “English Soup”?
But why is this elegant Italian trifle dessert made of ladyfingers, liqueur, and custard, called Zuppa Inglese? Truth be told there is no easy answer.
There are many stories of how this yummy dessert came to be called “English Soup” from celebratory dinners for Admiral Nelson in Naples to English housemaids throwing together leftovers in Tuscany. So there are plenty of possible explanations, but no one really knows.
One idea in John Mariani’s, Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink, even suggests that it could simply be a breakdown of the word inzuppare which means “to sop”, as the ladyfingers in Zuppa Inglese sop up the liqueur.
But all stories aside, most people believe that a dish similar to modern Zuppa Inglese began being developed in the Emilia Romagna and Tuscany regions of Italy sometime in the 1500’s.
What Probably Happened…
Not as exciting as some of the other stories, but the most likely explanation is that Victorian era English expatriates were craving something similar to an English trifle and ended up substituting typical trifle ingredients for the local Italian equivalents. So pound cake became sponge cake, English custard became Italian pastry custard (or crema), and so on.
And over the years as the dessert spread throughout Italy many regional, and even city-specific variations were developed. This created a dessert that is quite versatile and a decadent ending to a wide variety of meals.
Regional Variations of Zuppa Inglese
Emilia Romagna – Adds coffee flavoring, plum jam, and rum or layers of chocolate and vanilla pastry cream separated by Alchermes soaked sponge cake.
Modena – Uses ladyfingers or gallette instead of sponge cake as well as sugar syrup and white vermouth instead of Alchermes, and layers of chocolate or chocolate custard.
Napoli – Sponge cake may be replaced with Margherita cake or Pan di Spagna, rum and limoncello may join or replace the Alchermes, and the whole dessert is covered with meringue and then baked to set.
However, for this easy Zuppa Inglese recipe, we will be focusing on the Emilia Romagna style of this classic Italian dessert. It is the most traditional variation with the longest history.
What is Alchermes? – Medicine of the Medicis
Alchermes is a spicy-sweet Italian liqueur that is a key ingredient in most traditional Zuppa Inglese recipes. It is a medium-strength liqueur (21% to 35% abv) made by adding cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, and other herbs and flavoring agents to a neutral spirit.
Its striking red color was originally created by adding small insects known as Kermes to the ingredient mix in a similar way that is done with Campari and many other Italian amaro liquers. This too was the source of the name, an Italianization of the Arab al’kermes.
Yet, nowadays these insects are rarely an included ingredient by most Alchermes makers. They have very little impact on the flavor, so you aren’t missing out on anything if you opt for Alchermes, or another substitute, without them.
One recommended substitute is rum with grenadine (for color) or simply grenadine syrup if you want to make an alcohol-free version of Zuppa Inglese.
How to Make Alchermes at Home
If you can’t find a bottle of Alchermes, you can always make your own. It will come close to replicating the original if you have a couple of weeks to wait.
Infuse vodka (~500ml) with flavoring elements for at least 14 days by adding: 3 cinnamon sticks, orange peel from 1 orange, 1 Tbsp mace or nutmeg, a pinch of saffron and/or ½ vanilla bean, and 1 heaped Tbsp of fennel, coriander, and cardamom. All of these ingredients are to your preference.
Once the infusion is finished, make about 750ml of simple syrup. Then allow it to cool and add coloring. Cochineals are traditional, but red food coloring works as well (½ tsp as needed for color) and high-quality rose water (1 to 3 Tbsp to taste).
Mix the red and rosy simple syrup with the infused vodka, strain, and store in a bottle. It is now ready. Yet, giving it a few days to settle is often recommended for better flavor and consistency. Also, homemade Alchermes will keep indefinitely when properly stored.
24(24)large ladyfingerscan be replaced with a sheet of sponge cake
The first step is to make the pastry cream. To do this, bring the milk to a very low boil in a medium-sized saucepan with the vanilla bean and a bit of lemon zest.
While the milk is coming to a boil, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a large bowl until well combined. Then add the flour and whisk well once more.
Now, while whisking constantly slowly add the hot milk to the bowl with the egg yolk mixture. You must continue whisking the entire time and add the milk slowly a little at a time for the pastry cream to be smooth. Then pour the egg yolk and milk mixture back into the saucepan and return to low heat while continuing to whisk until the pastry cream has thickened up a bit, but is nice and smooth. This should take about 5 to 6 minutes.
Remove the pastry cream from the heat and separate it into two bowls. Sprinkle one bowl of the pastry cream with a bit of sugar, then mix, and cover. Then add the cocoa powder to the other bowl of pastry cream, mix until smooth, and cover. Now, allow both bowls of pastry cream to cool.
Pour the Alchermes into a flat baking dish.
Dip the ladyfingers (or sponge cake) in the Alchermes for about 2 seconds on both sides to sop up the color and flavor. Then set aside.
To assemble, place a base layer of the ladyfingers into a glass bowl or cylinder-shaped dish. Then cover the ladyfingers with some of the cocoa infused pastry cream.
Now, add another layer of ladyfingers and cover with some of the vanilla pastry cream. Then continue to alternate layers of ladyfingers and pastry cream until you fill the dish. It's also a good idea to place the ladyfingers perpendicular to the previous layer to help with stability.
Once all the layers have been formed, seal with plastic wrap, and put the dish in the refrigerator to chill and set for about 2 hours.
To serve, top the dessert with whipped cream or dust with cocoa powder.
Ladyfingers are used as they are the most common form of this dish today, though a layer of sponge cake cut to the shape of the serving dish can be swapped in for the layers of ladyfingers when building the dessert. Quantities can be reduced by ratio to make a smaller amount to serve fewer guests.
This dessert will keep for up to 4 days in the fridge when covered and stored well.
Can I freeze this dessert?
No, it’s best eaten within a few days of being made and will not freeze well.
Can I make this recipe ahead of time?
Yes, you can. In fact, there are 2 ways to do this. You can make the Zuppa Inglese, cover it well, and store it in the fridge until ready to serve. Or, you can make the pastry cream ahead of time and then assemble the dessert a few hours before serving.
Can I make this dessert alcohol-free?
Yes, you can use grenadine syrup or even pomegranate juice in place of the Alchermes to make the recipe alcohol-free.
Can I make gluten-free Zuppa Inglese?
Yes, this recipe can most likely be made gluten-free, but I have not tested it. If you do, I suggest using gluten-free 1-to-1 flour for the pastry cream to work. And just replace the ladyfingers with a gluten-free sponge cake.