Zuppa Inglese: the dessert of Federico Fellini's dreams

The origin, recipe and variations of one of the best Italian cakes

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The origin, recipe and variations of one of the best Italian cakes.

The Zuppa Inglese (English Soup) is an Italian spoon dessert made with custard and sponge cake soaked in liqueurs such as Alchermes and Rosolio. The Zuppa Inglese is prepared throughout Italy, but each region has some small variations to the basic recipe, so there is no real "official recipe".

The dessert is prepared by layering sponge cake or Savoiardi biscuits soaked in a liqueur of your choice (the Alchermes is perfect for both flavour and colour), and using custard. The ideal is to prepare it in a transparent pan or single-portion glass glasses, to make the layers of colour visible.

The cake is then kept in the fridge to firm up, and is usually served cold.

Among the variants, there is the one that uses alternating custard with chocolate. In some recipes, apricot jam appears – much loved by nineteenth-century pastry chefs – and in others, fruit compotes.

Still, other recipes use coffee, bringing it closer to Tiramisu. Finally, some add a note of cinnamon.

The English soup is undoubtedly an Italian dessert, but the origin and etymology of the name are extraordinarily doubtful, and there is no documentation. Nevertheless, several legends have arisen...

In Italy

The name already appears at the end of the nineteenth century in the "bible" of Italian cuisine written by Pellegrino Artusi: 'The science of cooking and the art of eating well'. In the Marche region, the preparation of this dessert has been documented since the mid-nineteenth century; English travellers in the Marche were shocked by the name, having never seen this dessert at home. Interesting is the explanation they received from the Italians: the English term was intended as a synonym for 'alcohol lover', as the British were believed to be, as the recipe obligatorily requires the use of liqueurs.

In France

Some of the legends on the name declare that it was actually invented in France during the Hundred Years War, and to taunt the English rival it was named "English soup"; these sources are not reflected. Moreover, this recipe has no precedent in the French cuisine, therefore, to be considered a legend.

In England

According to some, its name would betray the derivation from the sumptuous English cuisine of the Elizabethan period, between the 16th and 17th centuries. In this case, the English soup would be the equivalent of the trifle, originally composed of a base of soft leavened dough, soaked in sweet wine, enriched with pieces of fruit and covered with custard and double cream. Another hypothesis that recalls an English origin regards Sir Charles O 'Connor who, it is said, conceived this recipe in the 16th century for the Queen.

There are various hypotheses also for many Italian regions, but in fact, there is no precise documentation.

Federico Fellini and his "Dream Cake"

Federico Fellini was an Italian director, screenwriter, cartoonist and writer. Fellini directed "La Dolce Vita", a film that caused a sensation for erotic situations, and for the description of the moral decline that went hand in hand with the economic well-being of Italian society at the time.

The English soup was Federico Fellini's favourite dessert, his "dream cake". Maddalena , the Fellini's sister always prepared it for her beloved brother, but instead of cocoa, she placed a meringue on top of the cake.

The recipe

Zuppa Inglese

I chose the most straightforward recipe, the one with biscuits instead of the sponge cake. Sponge cake is one of the hardest things to make, by far.

Serves8
CuisineItalian
MealDessert

Ingredients

  • 300g Savoiardi Biscuits (ladyfingers)
  • 1 litre + 60 ml whole milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 8 spoons of sugar
  • 6 spoons of flour
  • a pinch of vanilla seeds
  • 1 tablespoon of bitter cocoa
  • Alchermes liqueur to taste (if you are abstainers you can replace it with orange juice, preferably red)
  • whipped cream and chocolate chips (or cocoa powder) to decorate

Instructions

  1. First, prepare the custard. Heat the milk (1 litre) inside a saucepan, without bringing it to a boil. In another container, work the yolks with the sugar with the electric whisk, add the sifted flour and the milk flush, without stopping to mix the mixture to avoid lumps.
  2. Add the vanilla seeds to flavour the cream and bring it back on the heat; keep stirring until it thickens.
  3. Dissolve the bitter cocoa in 60 ml of hot milk.
  4. Divide the custard into 2 parts and combine the bitter cocoa diluted in milk with one part. Let the two pastry creams cool before proceeding with the assembly.
  5. Level the Savoiardi according to the containers you will use to serve your single portion Zuppa Inglese.
  6. Gently soak a couple of Savoiardi in Alchermes liqueur (or red-orange juice) and place them on the base of your containers. Cover with a layer of vanilla custard, alternate with a layer of soaked ladyfingers and coat with the cocoa custard.
  7. When serving, decorate with whipped cream and chocolate chips or cocoa powder.

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Enjoy your Zuppa Inglese!

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