A close cousin to tiramisù is Zuppa Inglese, an Italian take on British trifle that is popular in Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and central Italy. This spoonable dessert consists of layers of sponge cake or ladyfingers soaked in bright red alchermes, a sweet rose and spice liqueur. One layer of cake is coated with vanilla pastry cream and the next with chocolate pastry cream. A generous dusting of cocoa powder garnishes the treat.There are several versions and much academic debate surrounding alchermes' origins. According to Giovanni Ballarini of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the presence of alchermes suggests that the dessert was born in the Renaissance. At that time, cochineal dye, once used to color the liqueur, was brought to Italy by Arab traders. Alchermes was said to be the drink of the Medici family in Florence during that time too, further confirming the time and place of its origin. You can still purchase a version of alchermes made from an early 18th century recipe at the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence.When making Zuppa Inglese at home, there are many alternatives to the scarlet-colored liqueur. Cassis, Chambord or strawberry fragole are good options as well as a mildly bitter aperitivo such as Aperol. Consider adding a splash of rose water, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, and cloves to whichever liquor you choose.Tuscans present Zuppa Inglese one of three ways—as a layer cake, as a trifle made in a shallow casserole or in individual serving glasses. We enjoy seeing the layers in each serving when the dish is made in clear glasses.
- 1 Italian-style spongecake (recipe follows) or ladyfingers
- 1 cup alchermes, Chambord or cassis liqueur
- 1 batch pastry cream, half chocolate and half plain (recipe follows)
- whipped cream, as needed
- Split the spongecake into three layers then cut each layer into strips, approximately 1-½ inches wide.
- Cut the strips into pieces and tuck a few in the bottom of each glass.
- Brush the spongecake generously with alchermes. Divide half of the chocolate pastry cream evenly between the spongecake-lined glasses.
- Place another layer of spongecake strips on top of the chocolate pastry cream. Brush them generously with alchermes. Divide half of the plain pastry cream evenly between the spongecake-lined glasses.
- Repeat the previous two steps ending with a layer of plain pastry cream.
- Dust with cocoa powder. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. The dessert will keep refrigerated for 2 days. Serve with whipped cream if desired.
Italian-Style Spongecake Yield: One 8-inch round cake 1-¾ cups all-purpose flour 2 tablespoons cornstarch 6 large eggs 1 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease and line an 8- or 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper. Sift the flour and cornstarch together. Set aside. Combine the eggs, sugar, and lemon zest in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whip. Place the mixing bowl over but not touching simmering water. Warm the egg mixture while whisking constantly until the sugar dissolves and the egg reaches approximately 115˚F on an instant read thermometer. Remove the bowl from the heat. Beat the mixture using a mixer with the whip attachment. Beat on medium speed for 10-12 minutes until the eggs lighten and more than double in volume. Fold the flour mixture into the whipped eggs gently in two additions. Be careful not to over mix. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, leveling the top gently with a spatula. Bake until cooked through and light golden, for approximately 25 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack. Unmold and use immediately. Or wrap in plastic to be used the next day. Pastry Cream Yield: approximately 1 quart 3 cups milk 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 cup granulated sugar 8 egg yolks 6 tablespoons corn starch 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 2-3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces Bring the milk, vanilla and half of the sugar to a boil in a large non-reactive saucepan. Whisk the egg yolks in a mixing bowl. Whisk the sugar, cornstarch, and flour into the egg yolks. Pour about ½ cup of the boiling milk into the egg yolk mixture. Return it to the pan and cook, whisking vigorously, until the cream boils and is well thickened, for approximately 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove the pastry cream from heat and divide it evenly into two clean bowls. Add chocolate to one bowl.Stir until chocolate melts. Place plastic wrap on the surface of the custard to cover. Chill then refrigerate.