Paul and Lucy Spadoni periodically live in Tuscany to explore Paul’s Italian roots, practice their Italian and enjoy “la dolce vita.”
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two years ago, I accidentally discovered the true Italian name of what our Italian-American family
has always called Easter cake: It is zuppa inglese, which in
Italy is often served only once a year around Easter time, or for some families, at Christmas. I had the privilege of sampling true zuppa inglese
emiliana at the home of Stefano and Nancy Mammi (Read: It’s
the real thing: I find the true Easter cake made from an ancient
recipe). This sumptuous recipe has been
passed down in the Mammi family for more than 200 years, so it is
safe to say I enjoyed the real thing.
Zuppa inglese americana (with the colors much too vivid, I'm afraid)
my family always loved my mom’s Americanized version, so I’d
like to share her recipe. It is much easier to make than the original
Italian dessert, because the ingredients are readily available and
don’t take as long to prepare, so I am calling it zuppa inglese
americana. I looked at about 20 recipes online in both Italian
and English, and each one was different, so I realized that there is
no one correct version. I don’t have Mom’s recipe written down,
so I am going by memory, and thus it may not be perfectly the same –
but that’s how family recipes are passed along anyway.
most basic ingredients are cake and custard, but true Italian zuppa
inglese contains both rum and a colorful red liqueur called
alkermes or alchermes. The cake is usually spongecake (pan
di spagna) or a type of ladyfingers called savoiardi. It
is filled with custard (crema pasticcera), some of which is also set aside and mixed with unsweetened chocolate before using it in a layer.
Mom’s adaptation used lemonade instead of rum, white cake instead of spongecake, food coloring instead of alkermes and no chocolate – perhaps
because lemon and chocolate don’t go well together. Mine is
basically the same as Mom’s but I noticed that many recipes added
fresh fruit, so I include that as well now.
mix up a white cake following directions on the box. Divide the
batter into both a 9” x 13” pan and an 8” x 8” pan, so the cake doesn’t come out as thick. You will have to cut about five minutes
from the listed cooking time so the cake doesn’t burn. This will
result in two cakes that are only about a half inch in height. When
the cakes cool, take them out and cut them into strips about a half
a can of frozen lemonade, which you have allowed to thaw, and divide
the contents between three dinner plates. Tint each with food
coloring. I use red, blue and green (traditional zuppa inglese was
only red and white, but since coloring is more readily available now,
why not make it brighter?)
Dip the cake strips briefly into the
tinted lemonade and use the strips to line the inside of a 2.5 liter
clear Pyrex bowl, with the colored sides facing outwards (or color
both sides). It is a good idea to coat the inside of the bowl with butter so the cake comes out more easily at the end. You can use a larger bowl to increase the number of
servings, but you’ll have to mix more custard.
mix up two 2.9-ounce boxes of Jello “cook and serve” custard pie filling.
Custard may be difficult to find at the grocery store, but you can buy it
online at Amazon.
If you don’t have the time to find a real custard mix, you can
use vanilla pudding and add two eggs per box of pudding (or use a
4.6-oz. box of vanilla pudding and add three eggs). It is important to follow very carefully the directions that tell you to “stir constantly” when making custard.
a half inch layer of custard into the cake-lined bowl. Then add a
shallow layer of fresh fruit such as raspberries, blackberries or
sliced banana or strawberries. Build another layer of lemonade-dipped
cake strips. Alternate layers of custard, fruit and cake strips until
the bowl is full. I like to end with the colored cake strips, but
pudding topped with strawberry halves also looks great. However, the
top layer doesn’t matter that much, because before you serve it,
the top layer will become the bottom layer anyway.
chill for 24 hours. Invert the bowl onto a plate, remove the bowl and
serve. Mamma mia, che meraviglia! --------------------------------------------------
My sister Linda has much more knowledge about Mom’s traditional
cake than I do, so I asked for her comments. She said that the bright
colors I used were not normal. Mom “never used bright colors, only
pastel pink, yellow, and green, and she made a picture or fancy
design as the bottom layer, like Easter eggs or an Easter basket, or
a flower, which is probably why she also said it was important to use
a pan with a flat bottom.”
also commented: “Another difference is that the cake mixes back
then didn’t have oil to make them extra moist, so the slices were
easier to handle. She used less water than called for also. She used
a sharp knife to trim off the brown edges on the ends and bottoms of
the slices, and of course she peeled off that top layer.”