This traditional Italian dessert originated in northern Italy in the region Emila-Romagna although it can now be found throughout northern and central Italy. Although its true origins are unknown, it is thought that it first appeared in the sixteenth century in the kitchens of the Dukes of Este in Ferrara. It is said that they asked their cooks to replicate the delicious trifles that they had enjoyed on their journeys to England, and Zuppa Inglese was born.
Zuppa Ingles is made by either dipping lady fingers or brushing layers of sponge cake with Alchermes, (also known as Alkermes) liqueur. The dessert is assembled by alternating layers of the cookies or sponge cake with pastry cream. Some versions, including my recipe, add layers of chocolate pastry cream as well. Zuppa Inglese is then finished with a layer of meringue, sliced almonds, or shaved chocolate.
I haven’t made Zuppa Inglese at home since we lived in Milan over 20 years ago. The reason I hadn’t made this dessert recently was because I wanted to use the traditional bright pink spiced liqueur, Alchermes, which is impossible to find in North America. This year I brought a small bottle of this unique liqueur home with me from Umbria so that I could make this dessert for my family at Christmas. Alchermes is a type of Italian liqueur from Tuscany that is prepared by infusing alcohol with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla, and other herbs and flavoring agents. Its most striking characteristic is its bright pink color, which in the past was made by using the shells of insects. This liqueur is slightly syrupy and has a sweet, spicy flavor making it perfect to use in various desserts. Although often impossible to find outside of Italy, I have included a recipe to make your own Alchermes, courtesy of CooksInfo.com if you are interested in making your own at home. Mario Batali suggests that Sassolino, or Mandorla Amara can be used in place of Alchermes, while other sources suggest using Curacao, or Grand Marnier, coloring the liqueur with Grenadine syrup. I have even heard of using pomegranate liqueur in place of the Alchermes.
I wanted to make this pretty dessert for Christmas Day, and my plans had included baking the sponge cake ahead of time. While shopping for the holidays however, I found some very soft, delicate lady fingers or savoiardi cookies at Trader Joe’s that I knew would work perfectly in my Zuppa Inglese. This dessert can be made the day before serving, making it ideal for holiday entertaining and is gorgeous made in a clear glass trifle bowl, so all the layers are visible. I made a rather large trifle that twelve of us enjoyed for Christmas Day although we did have leftovers to enjoy the following day.
Deborah Mele Revised 2020
- 1 1/2 Liters Whole Milk
- 1 1/2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
- 6 Large Eggs
- 12 Tablespoons Sugar
- 6 Tablespoons Corn Starch
- 5 Ounces Dark Chocolate, Chopped
- Alchermes Liqueur (See Notes Above)
- 24 Savoiardi Cookies
- 3 Ounces Shaved Dark Chocolate
- Mint Leaves
- Fresh Raspberries
Homemade Alchermes Liqueur:
- 1/2 Teaspoon Cardamom
- 1 Teaspoon Cinnamon
- 1/2 Teaspoon Coriander
- 4 Cloves
- 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Star Anise Fruit
- 1/2 Vanilla Pod
- 2 Cups of 90% Alcohol
- 1 Cup of Water
- 2 Cups Sugar
- 1/2 Cup Rose Water
- Red Food Coloring or Grenadine
- Heat the milk in a heavy bottomed saucepan with the vanilla and sugar until it begins to simmer.
- Remove from the heat.
- Whisk together the eggs and corn starch in a separate pan, being careful to remove any lumps.
- Slowly begin to pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking continually to prevent the eggs from coagulating.
- Place the pan over low heat, and whisk continually until the mixture begins to thicken, about 7 to 8 minutes.
- Remove the custard from the heat and divide between two bowls.
- Add the chocolate to one bowl, and stir until melted.
- Pour a cup of the liqueur along with a cup of water into a bowl.
- Quickly dip the sponge cookies into the Alchermes mixture, barely wetting them, and then layer the cookies across the bottom of your trifle bowl.
- Spoon some of the custard over the cookies, then continue to assemble the trifle, alternating the chocolate and regular pastry cream custards.
- Finish with a custard layer.
- Refrigerate the trifle for at least 4 to 6 hours (or overnight), then decorate with the shaved chocolate, mint leaves and berries before serving.
- For The Alchermes Liqueur, crush together the cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, 2 of the cloves, the star anise, and the vanilla.
- Put in a bottle along with the alcohol and the water.
- Seal the bottle, and for the next two weeks, shake twice daily.
- Add enough cold water to the sugar to dissolve it, then add this to the bottle.
- Shake well, seal up again, and let sit another two days.
- Then filter it, mix in the rose water, and it is ready to be bottled and used.