In the Kitchen: Zuppa Inglese

Dear Constant Reader,

Last month we celebrated both Scratch’s & Devora’s birthdays and I made zuppa inglese for our little party. What?, you may ask.

True Italian zuppa inglese (“English soup”) is sponge cake soaked in alkermes and layered with pastry cream. There’s great debate as to the age and origins of the dish. One theory is that it’s an Italian take on English trifle, hence the name. As much as I want to, I’m not going to take you down a rabbit hole of culinary history. Not now, any way.

Alkermes (also spelled “alchermes”), since I know you’re going to ask, is a liqueur flavored with spices and colored a gorgeous red with dried cochineal insects (also known as kermes, hence the name of the liqueur). Do not be repulsed by the inclusion of bugs. They’re totally harmless and frequently used to color food and cosmetics as “carmine”. I’ve made alkermes and it’s such a beautiful color. That, however, is a story for another time.

Now, the zuppa inglese I made is not the authentic Italian version, but more of an American adaptation. I got the recipe from Angie Pontani via her Go-Go-Robics II DVD (yes, she provides recipes on a exercise video).

This zuppa inglese is the style of dessert known as “icebox cake”, since, after layering cake or cookies, pudding or whipped cream, and perhaps fruit, you chill it in your fancy new-fangled icebox. During the 1920s it was also known as “flapper pudding” because it was so quick and easy even a flighty modern gal could throw it together. Icebox cakes of many different styles have been popular throughout the 20th century. You might remember one made of chocolate wafer cookies layers with whipped cream.

For this recipe start with sponge cake or lady fingers. Some say you can use pound cake, but I think it’s too heavy. If you don’t have time to make cake, you can certainly buy it. I baked a sponge cake of the sort the Brits call a “fatless sponge”. It has no butter and is lightened with well-beaten eggs.

You’ll need flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, hot water, vinegar, and eggs.

Separate the eggs. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Beat the yolks until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually beat in sugar.

Add flour mixture, hot water, and vinegar to egg yolks. Fold in egg whites.

Bake in a greased and floured pan and let cool completely. You can make this a day ahead.

When you’re ready to make your zuppa inglese, you’ll need the cake, a big can of crushed pineapple, a jar of maraschino cherries, amaretto, a box of French vanilla pudding, milk, heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla extract.

Cut the sponge cake into 1/2″ thick slices. Drain pineapple and reserve the juice. Drain maraschino cherries and reserve the juice. Make the pudding, but use one cup less milk, so it’s thick & spreadable, and chill it.

Lay half of the sponge cake slices side by side in a large dish. I was transporting this to rehearsal, so I used a 13″x9″ baking dish, which was perfect.

Drizzle half the pineapple juice over the cake. Do the same for the cherry juice. Then repeat with some amaretto (or rum).

Spread the pineapple over the cake. Get it right to the edge!

Cover the pineapple with another layer of cake slices. Sprinkle with the remaining pineapple juice, cherry juice, and amaretto.

Spread the pudding on top of the cake.

Make whipped cream with heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla. Spread over the top of the cake. Decorate with the cherries and chill for a couple of hours in the fridge.

Isn’t it pretty!

You can sort of see the layers and attractive colors here.

You want to serve this the same day you make it or the cake gets very soggy. It’s still delicious, just wet and easier to scoop than slice.

If you want the actual recipe, you’ll need to get a copy of Go-Go-Robics II or perhaps Angie will post it on her new blog.

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