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).
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.
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.