Zuppa Inglese, which means literally “English Soup”, has nothing to do with England or soup. It is an Italian dessert which is like trifle.
There are many variations (see below), but in general a pan or dish is lined with sponge cake or lady fingers that have been soaked in a liqueur called “alchermes.” Alternating layers of sponge cake, “Crema pasticcera” (pastry cream) and chocolate-flavoured pastry cream are then made inside the lining, and the dessert is chilled and served cold.
Zuppa Inglese is not usually sold in bakeries; it’s something you make at home.
Rum or other alcohol can be used instead of the alchermes liqueur. Whipped cream can be used instead of the “Crema pasticcera.”
Some versions use almonds and candied fruits instead of the chocolate. Some versions are topped with meringue, which is then browned, or with whipped cream.
Among the different regional variations in Italy are:
- Zuppa Inglese Bolognese
- Zuppa all’Emiliana
- Zuppa Inglese Modenese
- Zuppa Inglese Napoletana
- Zuppa Inglese da Pasticceria
- Zuppa Inglese Romagnola
- Zuppa Inglese Salernitana
This variation has layers of chocolate flavoured custard, coffee flavouring, plum jam and uses both rum and alchermes.
Zuppa Inglese Modenese
The Modenese version is very similar to the Salernitana version (see below), except layers of chocolate flavoured custard or chocolate are introduced.
Zuppa Inglese Napoletana
The Neapolitan version is made with thin slices of Margherita Cake or “Pan di Spagna.” The cake slices are soaked in a sugar syrup flavoured with rum, maraschino, alchermes or limoncello, then arranged in an ovenproof dish, spread with pastry cream, then spread with dollops of cherry or strawberry jam, then covered with meringue, so that it forms the shape of a dome, and baked for about 20 minutes. It is then chilled and served cold.
Zuppa Inglese da Pasticceria (pasticcera)
Means with pastry cream as opposed to whipped cream.
Zuppa Inglese Romagnola
Sponge cake or lady fingers are used, along with lashings of alchermes to streak the dessert red. Half the pastry cream is left vanilla-flavoured, the other half flavoured with bitter cocoa. Layers are made of white pastry cream, chocolate pastry cream and soaked cake. It is topped with a final layer of cake, and more alchermes.
Zuppa Inglese Salernitana
This version is made either with large, sweet soft biscuits called “gallette”, or with ladyfingers that are lightly soaked in a liquid of sugar syrup and white vermouth. Layers are made of these biscuits and Crema pasticcera topped with a layer of biscuits. It is then refrigerated and served chilled.
If you are making a version that is topped with meringue, you need to assemble your Zuppa Inglese in an oven-proof dish because it will have to go into the oven to brown the meringue.
For Alchermes, you can substitute an orange-flavoured liqueur such as Curaçao or Grand Marnier, mixed with Grenadine Syrup for the colour. For a non-alcoholic version, you can use just the Grenadine Syrup, with perhaps some concentrated orange flavouring made from orange extract or orange zest.
Store in fridge until ready to serve.
There is much nonsense about the history of Zuppa Inglese. Regions as diverse as Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Naples claim to have invented it. Its invention has been linked to people anywhere from Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici III to a woman named Lady Emma Hamilton (lover of Admiral Nelson).
Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna (just north of Bologna) also claims to be the home of Zuppa Inglese. In fact, they sometimes call it “Zuppa Ferrarese”. They say it was created in the 1600s at the court of the Duke of Este in Ferrara.
Such a line-up of famous people should already have your “food myth” radar pinging like crazy.
Wherever it evolved, there are two theories about how exactly it came about:
- it is a uniquely Italian dish, which evolved completely in isolation in Italy and just happened to resemble the English dish trifle;
- rich Italians or Italian diplomats who travelled to England as early as the 1600s and had been served Trifle made attempts to recreate it at home; what their efforts produced was Zuppa Inglese.
Theory Number Two is possible, because Trifles were evolving from Fools in the mid 1600s and had starting to look like what we now know as Trifle by that time.
It likely is true that Zuppa Inglese became popular with the English traipsing through Italy in the 1800s on their grand tours, because it contained something very close to custard and came out looking very much like Trifle, two things very close to English hearts.
Soup comes from the word “sop”, which meant bread soaked in milk