Say the words “Zuppa Inglese” to my siblings and immediately their thoughts will turn to Christmas. Consisting of liquor “enhanced” lady fingers swimming in a lemon-flavored custard, this “English Pudding” was as much a part of my family’s Christmas Dinner tradition as was the platter of ravioli and the roasted chestnuts. To be sure, this is a dessert intended for adults but Mom didn’t forget us kids. She, also, made a non-alcoholic version which you can find in Variations below. (Even so, Dad always managed to sneak us a taste of his dessert when Mom wasn’t looking.)
The recipe I’m sharing is a version Mom gave me that calls for only 12 egg yolks. Before you think, “Only 12 egg yolks!?!?!” understand that the original recipe, a copy of which I also have, calls for 36 egg yolks. That’s a whole lotta Zuppa Inglese! In fact, making a batch of custard that large became a team sport, so to speak, with Mom, Zia, and Nonna suiting up against 3 dozen taunting yolks gathered menacingly in the bottom of an enamel pan. You see, when making so much custard on top of the stove — without a double boiler, mind you — it must be given constant attention and stirred non-stop for about 45 minutes. Leave it for a minute, unattended, and you’ll return to a lumpy mess. So, the Ladies of the 2-flat banded together on Christmas Eve, each taking a 10 to 15 minute turn stirring the pot, while her teammates played Briscola. I remember them moving the kitchen table close to the stove so that the “stirrer” could sit on the table’s edge while the other 2 Ladies kept the card game going at the other end of the table. Sipping a glass of wine all the while, the 3 chatted, laughed, played, and stirred until all agreed that the custard was done. A few minutes later and there was enough Zuppa Inglese, both with and without alcohol, to serve anyone seated at the Christmas Dinner table.
As always, there are a couple of things to consider when preparing this dish. First off, I cannot stress enough that the custard must be stirred constantly, especially if you do not have a double boiler. Failure to do so and you may find yourself buying more eggs when you should be wrapping presents. (No need to run out and buy a double boiler. Place a couple of inches of water in a saucepan over low to med-low heat. Put the ingredients in a bowl large enough to lay on top of the saucepan without falling in. The boiling water should never touch the bottom of the bowl.) Make sure to keep clean the sides and bottom of the bowl as you stir. You’ll know the custard is ready (20 – 25 minutes for 12 eggs; about 45 minutes for 36 eggs) when it is noticeably thick and coats the back of a wooden spoon.
Custard aside, you can control how “spirited” you want your dessert to be. The recipe calls for equal parts whiskey, sweet vermouth, and grenadine. How much you use to “enhance” the lady fingers is your choice. Dip the lady fingers into a booze bath and you’ll have one very strong
cocktail dessert. Use a pastry brush to “paint” the fingers and, depending on how thorough a painter you are, you may still have a pretty potent pudding. On the other hand, using your fingers to lightly sprinkle spirits across the lady fingers will result in a relatively zing-free zuppa. No matter which method you use, remember Italians waste nothing. So, use the left over liquor as the base of a nice cocktail, rewarding yourself for a job well-done.
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Zuppa Inglese Recipe
yield: one 9 x 9 x 2″ dish, filled with 3 layers of lady fingers in custard
- 12 egg yolks
- zest of 1 lemon
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup half-and-half
- lady fingers (thinly sliced pound cake may be substituted)
- Place all ingredients, except the lady fingers, in the top-half of a double boiler or in a mixing bowl as indicated above. Use a whisk to thoroughly combine.
- Place a couple of inches of water in the bottom-half of the boiler, reassemble the double boiler, and heat over a low to med-low heat.
- Stir constantly, making sure to scrape the bowl’s sides & bottom in the process.
- After 20 to 25 minutes, the custard should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Remove from heat and pour the custard through a sieve to remove any bits of zest.
- Ladle enough custard to coat the bottom of a serving dish. Place on layer of lady fingers into the dish and dress with as much liquor as you prefer.
- Repeat the process, at least twice. Make sure to reserve enough custard to apply a final coating of custard to “top off” the dish.
- Refrigerate, covered, for several hours or overnight.
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As noted earlier, Mom made a non-alcoholic dish of Zuppa Inglese for us kids and any adults who didn’t want to imbibe. To do so, she prepared a 2nd dish only this time she substituted grenadine for the spirits. Feel free to use some other flavoring, or nothing at all, to create an alcohol-free dessert for your table.
Up to this point, we’ve prepared the zuppa in a square baking dish. You can easily create a trifle, though depending on the size of the trifle dish, you may need to make a large batch (36 yolks) of custard. Just as was done in the baking dish, alternate layers of custard and “enhanced” lady fingers until near the top of the dish. Be sure to top-off the dish with a coating of custard. If you wish, you may encircle the stack with “treated” lady fingers that are standing on end, side by side, and pressed up against the trifle dish wall. And if you didn’t make enough custard or just want something a little different, you can alternate layers with one or 2 of whipping cream in place of the pudding. In fact, using whipping cream for the top-off will allow you to fill in any low spots that may result when the trifle settles. (Tip: Add a tbsp of (non-fat) powdered milk to the heavy cream as it is being whipped. The resulting whipped cream will have additional “staying power.”)
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Mom would be disappointed if she found out that I posted today’s recipe AFTER Christmas! Zuppa Inglese, after all, was her Christmas Dinner dessert. Well, in my defense, I had intended to publish it last week, in plenty of time for the holiday. Unfortunately, my small kitchen appliances had other plans and a couple of them balked at the slightest of tasks. (One is now gone and I repaired the other. A Christmas miracle, to be sure!) My to-do list was thrown upside-down and, unfortunately, today’s post “took the hit.” Rest assured. Zuppa Inglese is every bit as tasty on New Year’s Day or “Little Christmas,” as it is on December 25th.
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