Sponge Cake with Custard and Liqueur (Zuppa inglese)

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Prep Time: 75 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Servings: 4

Most connoissuers of Italian food know that the name of this popular dessert means “English soup,” which it was supposedly given for its resemblance to British trifle. However, few know that one of the ingredients, alchermes, a bright red, herb-and-spice-flavored liqueur invented by Florentine monks, derives its name from the Arabic qirmiz, which is also the source of the English word crimson. The composition of zuppa inglese may vary, the only constants being cake, custard, and alcohol, preferably some of it red. To save time and labor, use a store-bought sponge cake.


  • For the Sponge Cake:
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1⁄3 cup granulated sugar 
  • Pinch of salt 
  • 1⁄3 cup cake flour 
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder 

  • For the Custard:
  • 2 cups whole milk 
  • 1 large lemon zest strip 
  • 1 large whole egg
  • 3 large egg yolks 
  • 1⁄3 cup granulated sugar 
  • 1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour 
  •  1 teaspoon Sambuca
  • 1⁄4 cup rum, or more to taste 
  • 1⁄4 cup alchermes (see note) or framboise 
  • 1⁄2 cup heavy (double) cream  
  • 2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar 
  • About 2 teaspoons grated bittersweet chocolate  


To make the sponge cake, preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter an 8-inch cake pan, dust with flour, and tap out the excess.

In a bowl, using a handheld mixer on medium speed, beat together the egg yolks and granulated sugar until thick and pale yellow, about 5 minutes. When the beaters are lifted, the mixture should fall from them in a ribbon that slowly dissolves on the surface. In a large bowl, using the mixer with clean beaters, beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the salt and beat until firm peaks form.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. Using a rubber spatula, gradually fold the flour mixture into the yolk mixture. Stir about one-third of the whites into the yolk mixture, and then gently fold in the remaining whites just until no white streaks remain. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, let cool for about 10 minutes, and then turn the cake out onto the rack. While the cake is baking, make the custard. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk and lemon zest strip and heat until small bubbles appear along the edges of the pan. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly, and then remove and discard the lemon zest. Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk together the whole egg, egg yolks, and granulated sugar until well blended. Whisk in the flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, and then continue whisking the mixture until it is thick and pale yellow, about 5 minutes. Slowly pour the hot milk into the egg mixture while stirring constantly. Then pour the contents of the bowl into the saucepan, place over low heat, and heat gently, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Stir in the Sambuca. Let cool to room temperature, stirring from time to time to prevent a skin from forming.

To assemble, using a serrated knife, cut the cake into slices about 2-by-3 inches and 1⁄4 inch thick. Line the bottom of four 1-cup bowls, preferably clear glass, with some of the cake slices. Sprinkle the cake with some of the rum. Spread one-fourth of the custard (about 1⁄2 cup) over the cake slices. Top with another layer of cake slices, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the alchermes. Spread one-third of the remaining custard over the top. Repeat to make 2 more layers of cake, liqueur, and custard, and then end with a cake layer. Cover and refrigerate for several hours, or preferably overnight, before serving.

In a bowl, using a balloon whisk, combine the cream and confectioners’ sugar and beat until medium-stiff peaks form. Spoon the cream on top of each bowl and sprinkle with the chocolate.

Serves 4.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Rome, by Maureen B. Fant (Oxmoor House, 2005).

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