Italian Rum Cake (Zuppa Inglese)

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Italian Rum Cake (Zuppa Inglese) cookbook: Lidia's Italy in America
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serves: 8 or more

This moist, creamy, and flavorful dessert, zuppa inglese (“ English soup”), has its roots in the English trifle and it was thought that it first appeared during World War II, when British soldiers were stationed in Italy with only meager custard rations. However, the recipe appears in Pellegrino Artusi’s book, published in 1891, before any Allied forces had been stationed in Italy. Other theories reach as far back as the Renaissance. Zuppa inglese is traditionally made with sponge cake, but I use savoiardi (ladyfinger) cookies, as are used in tiramisù, hence making the assembly much quicker. This dessert was a staple of every Italian American restaurant, and every Italian bakery made a version of it.


2 cups whole milk
1¾ cups sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
pinch kosher salt
3 large eggs
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
⅓ cup diced candied orange peel
¼ cup rum
2 cups heavy cream, chilled
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
36 savoiardi cookies (ladyfingers)

For the pastry cream

Pour the milk into a medium saucepan set over low heat. Whisk in ¹⁄₂ cup sugar, the cornstarch, and pinch of salt, and bring the milk to a simmer, just to dissolve the sugar. Whisk eggs in a medium bowl. While whisking, slowly pour the hot milk into the eggs to temper them, then pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Return the saucepan to medium- low heat, and cook, stirring and whisking, until the mixture just simmers and thickens. Immediately remove from the heat and scrape into a bowl to cool. Mix in the chocolate and orange peel. Refrigerate until chilled and thickened, at least 1 hour.

For the sugar syrup

Bring 3 cups water and 1 cup of the sugar to a boil in a saucepan. Boil until reduced by about a quarter. Remove from heat, stir in the rum, and let cool completely.

To assemble

When you are ready to assemble the zuppa, whip the cream and remaining ¹⁄₄ cup sugar to form soft peaks. Fold half of the whipped cream, along with the cinnamon, into the chilled pastry cream. Make a fl at layer with half of the savoiardi in a 9- by- 13- inch Pyrex or ceramic dish. Brush with half of the sugar syrup to moisten, then spread half of the pastry cream on top. Top with another layer of savoiardi, and brush on the remaining syrup. Spread the rest of the pastry cream over top in an even layer, then spread with the whipped cream. If you have any savoiardi left, crumble them over the top. Chill several hours, or overnight, to let the flavors blend before serving.

This recipe is from Lidia’s newest book, Lidia’s Italy in America, which was released in October.

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