Zuppa Inglese

This is one of the classic, home-made desserts you might be served if invited over for pranzo (lunch) or dinner in many parts of Italy: a bit more refined than a simple crostata, but not as complicated (or expensive) as tiramisu’.  Think of it as equivalent, on the elegance scale, to a home-baked pie —  and, like a pie, Zuppa Inglese can be endlessly refined and tweaked subject to one’s taste and fancy. It is also a popular gelato flavor.

Wikipedia reports that recipies for this dessert first appeared in towns of the Emiglia-Romagna region, north of Umbria and Tuscany, in the late 19th century. “Zuppa” — literally “soup”–  comes from the Italian word “inzuppare,” meaning “to dunk,” and in fact to make this dish cookies  are dunked in a liquor, traditionally Alchermes but sometimes Cognac or Grand Marnier.  According to one theory, “Inglese” originates from efforts to re-create the delicious “English Trifle” that Italian nobles allegedly enjoyed when traveling to England, a major trading partner, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The basic Zuppa Inglese layers (1) ladyfingers that have been quickly dunked in (or basted with) Alchermes ; (2) a  fragrant cooked custard (crema) flavored with lemon rind and vanilla; and (3) a layer of crema flavored with chocolate.  Optional toppings range from a layer of dusted cocoa or shaved dark chocolate, to whipped cream, to piped curlicues made with a mixture of left-over crema and Nutella (my favorite!).

Alchermes, a slightly bitter, brilliant red aromatic liqueur, is almost impossible to find outside Italy. Here, we substitute a mixture of liquors and Bing cherry juice. However, many households leave out the liquor altogether (you can make this with just cherry juice, perhaps with a dash of bitters for more authenticity) and the zuppa is delicious either way.

Zuppa Inglese


  • 2 oz semi-sweet baking chocolate, melted in a double boiler or in a microwave
    7 to 14  ounces of ladyfinger cookies*
    1 tbsp dark rum + 2 tbs Cognac + 2 tbs Drambuie + 4 tbs dark cherry juice

For the crema:

  • 4 egg yolks
    3/4 c. sugar
    1 tsp vanilla
    1/4 c. flour
    2 c. milk
    zest of 1 lemon

*Ladyfingers of Italian origin are often sold in 200 gr packages, or 7 oz.  A popular brand available in Italian specialty stores and online (Amazon) is Pavesini, which are quite small, 64 in a 7 oz package. “Savoiardi” style ladyfingers are much bigger, 24 to a 7 oz package: these can be found online and in Italian and some Latin-food specialty stores. The number of cookies you use depends mostly on the size of your serving dish and on the amount of crema. Alternate versions of this recipe call for using thinly sliced pound or sponge cake, but Egizia and Franca use ladyfingers.

1. Make the crema: In a heavy bottomed saucepan, beat together the sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla. Add the flour gradually and mix together well. In a microwave, heat the milk until almost boiling. Slowly add the milk to the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Over low heat or in a double boiler, cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring constantly in the same direction with a wooden spoon, until the crema clings thickly to it. Do not let it come to a boil (an occasional bubble is fine). Remove from the heat and divide into two portions, roughly 1/3 and 2/3. Add the  lemon zest to the larger portion and the melted chocolate to the smaller. Keep stirring to avoid forming a skin.

2. Choose a serving dish in which to assemble the Zuppa: a 2 quart glass casserole dish or 8 by 8 Pyrex baking dish (or similar) works nicely. Ideally, you want a glass dish, something that is clear and can display the layers.

3. Assembly: In a bowl mix together the liqueurs and cherry juice and stir.  Quickly dunk the ladyfingers in this mixture and layer the bottom of your dish: you do not want to soak the cookies as they will get soggy. Spread with  a generous layer of the lemon-flavored warm crema, about 1/2 the reserved amount. Layer again with dunked ladyfingers, followed by a layer of the chocolate crema. Place one more layer of dunked ladyfingers, the finish the Zuppa with the remaining plain custard. You may, if you wish, use a pastry bag to decorate the top of the crema with any left-over chocolate crema, which you can stretch with a bit of Nutella.  Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours. This dish doesn’t keep well as the ladyfingers get soggy from the liquor and custard over time.

Optional: Before serving, sift together confectioner’s sugar and unsweetened cocoa powder over the crema.

Buon Appetito!



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