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ZUPPA INGLESE, a famous, Italian dessert

I use Alchermes (or Alkermes) to make the famous Italian dessert zuppa inglese (literally translated as English soup). 

Zuppa Inglese is the Italian version of the English trifle generally made with sponge cake, moistened with fruit syrup or/and sweet sherry, layered with cream/and or custard, jam, and most times red coloured jelly made with jelly crystals.

Trifle is still being made in UK and countries like Australia (that initially inherited much of the British cuisine). Over time there have been some little variations to the recipe, for example I have often eaten trifle in Australian homes that included preserved fruit – particularly canned peaches. Recently fresh fruit has become a popular edition, particularly strawberries, that in Australia can be purchased cheaply and all year round.

There are many stories about how this English dessert came to be part of Italian cuisine. Some say that perhaps Italian diplomats tasted trifle on a visit to London and this may have been their interpretation of this dessert. Others say that it probably eventuated in the kitchens of the well-off English; there were many living in Florence in the late 1800’s till the lead up of the Second World War.  Most of them employed Italian staff; perhaps some signori inglesi missed some of their cooking from home and this was what their Italian kitchen maids prepared as trifle. They had to use Italian ingredients – savoiardi (sponge fingers – mostly used in layered Italian desserts) and Alchermes the ancient Florentine, red liqueur commonly used to moisten and flavour cakes. Fresh cream was (and is) rarely used in cakes in Italy, but pastry cream called crema pasticcera (also crema inglesecrème anglaise) is very common. And it is easy to see how this sloppy mess could be calledsoup”(zuppa).

I have seen modern Italian versions of recipes for zuppa inglese, which include red fruit (like berries) and many include chocolate. My mother’s version sometimes included grated dark chocolate on the top; I think that this was partly for decoration, but chocolate was never part of the dessert. Other modern versions may have a sprinkling of coffee beans and I wonder if the makers are getting confused with tiramisu, which because it contains coffee is often decorated with coffee beans.

I often make zuppa inglese especially when I am stuck for ideas, or have little time to prepare a dessert; it is so easy to prepare and never fails to impress.

I still use the traditional way to make it. I always assemble it in layers: sponge fingers moistened with Alchermes (either homemade or purchased at a good wine shop), cover these with crema pasticcera, repeat x 2-3 layers finishing with a layer of sponge fingers.

I use a large glass bowl to assemble the layers of ingredients (it is a pretty dessert) and keep the zuppa inglese, in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight before I intend to present it – it gives the dessert time to settle and the flavours to develop.  I finally cover it with a layer or tuffs of panna montata (literally meaning cream made into mountains – isn’t the Italian language marvellous!). it is also known as Chantilly cream, whipped cream with a little caster sugar flavoured with vanilla bean –Italians would never think about using plain cream in cakes.

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In the Zuppa Inglese above I have placed a sprinkling of crushed pistacchio nuts and chioccolate on top .

At some stage during my research about Alchermes I found out that the name is likely to have been derived from the Arabic “al” (a) and “qirmiz” (worm). This is because it contains cochineal, which gives the liqueur its red colour. Cochineal used to be made with a particular insect which was crushed and dried, this produced a rich, red dye.

In the photo I have included a bottle of purchased Alchermes (32% volume). I also make my own and there is a recipe on a previous post. I usually purchase the savoiardi but in the photo are savoiardi courtesy of a friend’s neighbour (her version as the shop bought variety are not usually ribbed) .The only recipe for this dessert is for the crema pasticcera:

INGREDIENTS

3 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons caster sugar infused with a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt 3 tablespoons of cornflour, 1 litre of milk, rind of 1 lemon, and a cinnamon stick.

 

PROCESSES

In a saucepan, mix the egg yolks with the sugar and slowly add the flour, salt and a little milk to make a smooth paste – a whisk could be useful. If you do not have sugar that has been infused with a vanilla bean, use a little vanilla (not artificial).
Add the rest of the milk and incorporate to dilute the mixture evenly.
Using a vegetable peeler remove the rind in one piece from ½ lemon. Add this to the milk mixture. Add the cinnamon stick.
Use low – medium heat, stir it constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon and slowly bring it to the boil- the custard should have thickened. Cool before using. To prevent a skin from forming, I place a piece of baking paper or butter paper on its surface.

 

ALCHERMES/ALKERMES (The liqueur used to make Zuppa Inglese)

It is interesting how some dessert recipes never die, for example Trifle.

Recently I ate a very nice trifle at a friend’s house. Our Californian friends were also guests and I was surprised to discover that they were not familiar with our common dessert made with sponge-cake, flavoured with wine or spirit, and served with custard and whipped cream.

Zuppa Inglese is the Italian version of an English trifle and literally translated it means English soup. This renowned Italian dessert contains sponge fingers, liqueur and crema inglese (crème anglaise). It may well be a tarted-up adaptation of English trifles introduced by the many wealthy English residents either living or visiting Italy in the  late 18th – 19th century (World War 2).

Zuppa  (meaning soup) could refer to the moist consistency of the dessert. But zuppa could also be derived from inzuppare, meaning to soak, and in the Zuppa Inglese, Italians replaced the jelly and jam (often red in colour) with a strong liqueur called Alchermes (or Alkermes).

Alchermes is a highly alcoholic, Florentine liqueur, red in colour and specifically used for making zuppa inglese. It is reputed to have been a secret recipe of the Medici family. The modern Alchermes is likely to be the development of an eighth century tonic which as well as rose-water, cinnamon, sugar and honey, was said to contain ground pearls, leaf gold, raw silk, musk, ambergris (produced in the digestive of system of sperm whales and used in perfumes).

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When I was a child living in Italy in the late 1950’s, Zuppa Inglese was a very in-style, traditional dessert and served in Italian restaurants.

Generally Italians living in Italy do not make desserts at home; if we had guests, my mother bought tortes or small cakes (as is the practice to buy from the experts, in this case from the pasticceria). This was not the norm in Australia and my mother made Zuppa Inglese for special occasions. I have continued to make this to the present day.

Alchermes was unavailable for many years and I had to use Maraschino – the zuppa inglese was a pale imitation of the Italian original and in the 1980’s I began making my own Alchermes.

Alchermes is reminiscent the Sicilian rosaliu – the generic name for a homemade liqueur – the flavourings are steeped in alcohol for a time, then sugar and water are added. Rosaliu possibly dates back to the 15th Century and was originally a pink cordial, made from rose petals (hence the name), it may have been an adaptation to rose sharbat (still popular in the middle east). Progressively and by the mid 18th Century it became an alcoholic drink generally made with lemons, oranges or mandarins and these became favoured over rose as flavourings. My elderly Sicilian aunt, zia Niluzza is a champion rosoliu maker and I make Alchermes by using a very similar procedure.

Pure grain alcohol is sold freely in Italy but in Australia I make Alchermes with grappa or vodka. Generally I do not measure quantities of spices – the following amounts are an approximation.

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INGREDIENTS

vodka or grappa (bottles are 700ml, I use about two-thirds of a bottle)
cinnamon sticks, 3,
orange peel from 1 orange,
fennel, cardamom pods, coriander seeds and cloves, 1 heaped tablespoon of each (cracked/bruised),
mace or nutmeg, shavings or powder, equivalent to 1 tablespoon
saffron, 1 large pinch of and/or ½ vanilla bean (spilt)
cochineal, ½ teaspoon or more
rose water, 1 tablespoon
Use a large wide mouth jar with a screw on lid. Place the alcohol into the jar and add all of the above flavourings, except for cochineal and rose water.
Leave undisturbed to steep in the alcohol in a cool dark place for at least 14 days.
Dissolve about 500g of sugar in 1 litre of hot (boiled) water. When cooled add some cochineal (to colour) and rose water. Add this to the to the alcohol and spices.
Strain through a piece of cheesecloth into a large jug or jar.
Transfer the contents into bottles (with a strong seal).

It keeps indefinitely.

Quannu ‘na cosa piaci, nun fa dannu (Sicilian proverb).
Quando una cosa piace, non fa` danno (Italian translation).
When one likes something, it can’t do any damage.

Zuppa Inglese continues to be glorified in my present household. For Christmas, we sometimes go to Albury where my partner’s family live and one year I was asked to make a trifle. I made a Zuppa Inglese and was nervous about presenting this variation.

But I needn’t have worried and I have been asked to make Zuppa Inglese again and again – it is the homemade Alchermes that does it, and keeps everyone happy!

See: How to make Zuppa Inglese, a famous Italian Dessert.

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