Zuppa Inglese: A dessert of ambiguous origin

The origin of certain preparations is difficult to perceive. The Zuppa Inglese is one of them.

Zuppa Inglese is a dessert typical of Italy’s Central Regions (especially Emilia Romagna, Toscana, Marche, Umbria and Lazio) whose origins are not clear: some say it dates back to 15 century, others to the 18th century.

The Zuppa Inglese is quite a treat for the eyes, and the taste buds!
Image: Alice Mini
Zuppa Inglese by tamara mambelli

Despite its name, which literally means ‘English Soup’,  the Zuppa Inglese originates from Central Italy. It’s called “English” because it was originally made with rum, usually drunk by English sailors (and also because it may resemble the English truffle). However, Rum was later replaced by other liquors, especially Alchermes (an Italian liquor of Arab origin that is used to make desserts, comprises ethyl alchol, sugar, cinnamon, cochineal, cloves and cardamom). Although each region claims to be the first developer, no one knows who is telling the truth, it can only be said for sure that the recipe is quite ancient.

It is also quite simple to make. It seems colorful and intricate, makes an impression, but is surprisingly easy to assemble.

The Layers: 

  • Pan di Spagna (sponge cake) or Savoiardi
  • Biscuits, moistened with Alchermes (that colors the sponge cake red)
  • Alternated with cream or crema, pasticcera (pastry cream).

It can be served just as is or topped with chocolate chips, fruit, sliced almonds or other decorative foods. The recipe and the  ingredients vary depending on the region you are in.

The Recipe:
I was helped making the Zuppa Inglese by a friend, achef of Marchigian origin, and owns a restaurant in Udine (“Al Picchio” restaurant), therefore I chose the recipe from her region (Marches), that uses Pan di Spagna, pastry cream, chocolate pastry cream and Alchermes.

The ingredients are typical of most sponge cake and icing recipes, but plating it is what differentiates it Image: Alice Mini

To make the Pan di Spagna (sponge cake), you will need:

-Sugar;

-2 Egg whites;

-Flour

To make the pastry cream:

 -Sugar;

– Egg yolk;

-Flour;

-Milk;

– Vanilla.

The Process:

There’s a lot of eggs in this recipe! Make sure you separate the yellows to make the pastry cream.
Image: Alice Mini
  • Mix ingredients for the sponge cake and bake for about 20 minutes.

  • Whip the pastry cream.
  • Pour the crema pasticcera into two bowls, with a bit more cream in one of them
  • In the bowl containing the lesser half of the crema, whisk in some dark chocolate until fully incorporated.
  •  Prepare whatever topping you have in mind.
  • Alchermes is used to moisten the Pan  di Spagna. Slice the cake into 1 cm (1/2 inch) slices and pour a good bit of your liqueur in a small bowl and dampen the slices slightly.

Take a serving container large enough to hold all the ingredients (usually a truffle bowl or a glass) and cover the bottom with a layer of moistened cake slices, breaking them up as needed to make a complete layer, then add a layer of the thin layer of the plain cream, another layer of cake, and
finally a layer of chocolate cream. Garnish by sprinkling some cocoa, and then devour it.

The ambiguous history of the Zuppa Inglese connects all the regions in which it is typical and every family member learns how to make it. Usually, grandmas make it for the children and teach them how to make it the way their grandmas taught them, so that every generation continue to carry the lineage of this simple but amazing dessert.

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