If you aren’t familiar with the dish, but are familiar with a bit of Italian, you might expect to find Zuppa Inglese in the starters section of the menu as the literal translation is “English Soup”.
But, in fact, you will find it listed under desserts in many classical Italian cookbooks and restaurants as it is a dish made by combining cake, liqueur, and custard into a colorful and decadent treat.
Why “English Soup”?
Now, why this blend of sponge cake, liqueur, and custard is called Zuppa Inglese is a question with no easy answer.
There are numerous stories that attempt to explain it. From celebratory dinners for Admiral Nelson in Naples to English house maids throwing together leftovers in Tuscany, there are plenty of possible explanations.
John Mariani’s, Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink even suggests that it could simply be a corruption of the word inzuppare which means “to sop”, as the cake sops up the liqueur.
All stories aside, what is commonly accepted is that a dish similar to the modern Zuppa Inglese began being developed in the Emilia Romagna and Tuscany regions sometime in the 1500’s.
What probably happened…
The most likely explanation, though somewhat less exciting than others, is that Victorian-era English expatriates were craving something similar to trifle and substituted in the local equivalents; Pound cake became sponge cake, English custard became Italian pastry custard (or crema), and so on.
As the dish spread through Italy many regional, and even city-specific, variations developed over the years, lending this dish a great deal of versatility and the ability to be a delightful 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, 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 is covered with meringue and baked to set
Although there are many variations on this dish, we will be focusing on the Emilia Romagna style in the recipe later in this article, as it appears to be the most traditional version with the longest history.
What is Alchermes? – Medicine of the Medicis
A key ingredient in most traditional Zuppa Inglese recipes is the spicy-sweet Italian liqueur Alchermes. This is a medium strength (21% to 35% abv) liqueur made by adding cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, and other herbs and flavoring agents to a neutral spirit.
Originally, its striking red color was provided by adding the small insects known as Kermes to the ingredient mix, similar to Campari and many other Italian amaro liqueurs. This was also the source of the name, an Italianization of the Arab al’kermes.
Nowadays these insects are rarely an included ingredient for most makers and had little impact on 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 the dessert.
How to Make Alchermes at Home
If you can’t find a bottle of Alchermes, you can make your own that will come close to replicating the original if you have a couple weeks to work with.
Infuse vodka (~500ml) with flavoring elements for at least 14 days (3 cinnamon sticks, orange peel from 1 orange, 1 Tbsp mace or nutmeg, pinch saffron and/or ½ vanilla bean, and 1 heaped Tbsp of fennel, coriander, and cardamom; all to your preference).
Once the infusion is finished, make about 750ml of simple syrup, allow it to cool and then add coloring (cochineals are traditional, but red food coloring works, ½ tsp as needed for color) and rose water (1 to 3 Tbsp to taste, use high quality rose water).
Mix the red and rosy simple syrup with the infused vodka, strain, and bottle. It is now ready and should keep indefinitely, though giving it a few days to settle is often good for better flavor consistency.
Traditional Zuppa Inglese (Italian Trifle)
This recipe is one of the most traditional Italian desserts throught the country. Easy to make and absolutely delicious!
The first step is to prepare the pastry cream. To do this, bring the milk to a very low boil with the vanilla bean and a bit of lemon zest.
While the milk is coming to heat mix the yolks with 350 g of sugar in a large bowl, once mixed well add the flour.
Strain the milk into the bowl and whisk quickly, then pour back into the pan the milk was in and return to low heat. Continue to stir until the consistency of the pastry cream is correct. This will take 5 or 6 minutes.
Remove the pastry cream from heat and separate into two bowls. In one sprinkle a bit of sugar and then cover. In the other add the cocoa powder and mix until smooth and then cover. Let cool.
Make a syrup using 170-180 ml of water and the remaining 80 g of sugar. Add the Alchermes and pour into a flat baking dish.
Dip the ladyfingers (or sponge cake) on both sides to sop up color and flavor from the Alchermes syrup (approx. 2 seconds per side) and then set aside.
Place a base layer of ladyfingers into a glass bowl (or cylinder if available for presentation) and then cover with a portion of the cocoa pastry cream.
Add another layer of ladyfingers and then cover with the vanilla pastry cream. Continue to alternate layers of ladyfingers and pastry cream until you fill the container. Placing the ladyfingers perpendicular to the previous layer can help with stability.
Seal with plastic wrap and put to chill in the refrigerator for around 2 hours.
It is now ready to serve, top with whipped cream to taste or preference!
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.
You can store Zuppa Inglese in the fridge for 3-4 days if covered with film plastic. You can freeze single portions of Zuppa Inglese in the freezer, when you decide it’s time to eat it, thaw it overnight in the fridge.