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Zuppa Inglese Recipe | How to Make the Italian “English Soup” Dessert

Zuppa Inglese, or “English Soup,” has old but mysterious origins. The strange title comes with a few theories, one being that it was an attempt to recreate an English trifle. In any case, Zuppa Inglese is a delicious dessert and a common sight on southern Italian tables. It was likely the ancestor of tiramisù, with which it shares a striking resemblance (albeit a completely different taste).

Zuppa Inglese Recipe | How to Make the Italian “English Soup” Dessert

While a classic tiramisù layers coffee-soaked lady fingers with a mascarpone/egg cream, Zuppa Inglese is made with sponge cake, milk custard, and an Italian liqueur called “Alchermes.” The latter gives the dessert a brilliant, red color.

How to Make the Perfect Zuppa Inglese

Making a Zuppa Inglese is quite simple and easy, provided you avoid a common mistake that will (ironically) make your “English Soup”” too soupy. A lot of cooks treat this dessert like a tiramisù and dip the sponge cake directly into the Alchermes liqueur. The result is a sloppy, wet mess.

To solve the problem, all one must do is arrange the sponge cake in layers, then drizzle a minimal amount of liqueur over the cake. You’ll want just enough to lightly saturate the sponge cake without completely soaking it—there should still be some white cake showing through in mottled spots. After a night in the fridge (a must for a good Zuppa Inglese), the Alchermes will spread into the cake evenly without creating a literal soup of liquid.

Substituting the Alchermes Liqueur in a Zuppa Inglese

A real Zuppa Inglese requires the use of Alchermes, which is a red liqueur flavored with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla. It can be tricky to find outside of Italy (not to mention expensive). If you can’t find it but want to come as close as possible to the real deal, try to find a sweet liqueur that is heavily spiced. Bonus points if you can find something with a scarlet color. Otherwise, substitute with the liqueur of your choice.

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Makes: One 2-quart (2 L) zuppa inglese, serves 4 to 6

Cook Time: 5 hours, largely unattended. The sponge cake and custards are best made 2 days in advance and the completed dessert is best made 1 day in advance.

For this recipe, you will need:

  • 5 large eggs

  • 1 ½ cups (300 g) granulated sugar, divided

  • 1 lemon zest, grated

  • 1 ⅓ cups (160 g) all-purpose flour for the cake, plus another ½ cup (60 g) for the custard

  • 4 ¼ cups (1 L) whole milk

  • A pinch of ground cinnamon

  • 8 egg yolks

  • ⅔ cup (50 g) unsweetened dark cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting

  • Alchermes liqueur

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, ¾ cup (150 g) sugar, and lemon zest with a hand mixer for 20 minutes to incorporate plenty of air into the eggs. Adding a little bit at a time, sift 1 ⅓ cups (160 g) of flour into the eggs with a fine mesh sieve and gently fold the flour in with a spatula.

Pour the sponge cake dough into a 9-inch (23 cm) round cake pan lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden on top. Pull the cake out from the pan using the parchment paper and let it cool to room temperature on a wire rack. For best results, wrap the cooled cake in plastic and let it rest at room temperature overnight.

While the sponge cake cooks, you can prepare the custards. In a medium pot over low heat, warm the milk with a pinch of cinnamon. The milk shouldn’t come to a boil, it just needs to be warm to the touch. Meanwhile, stir the egg yolks and ¾ cup (150 g) sugar together in a large mixing bowl.

When the milk is warm, add 2 to 3 ladlefuls of it into the egg yolks and mix until the eggs have completely dissolved. Pour the yolk mixture into the milk pot and cook at a very low temperature, stirring constantly, until the milk has thickened into a runny custard—about 15 minutes.

Divide the custard into two large bowls. Cover one with plastic wrap in contact with the surface to prevent a skin from developing, and set aside. Whisk the cocoa powder into the other bowl of custard until there are no clumps of powder. Cover this bowl in plastic wrap as well. Let the custards cool to room temperature then chill in the fridge for at least one hour, preferably overnight.

Cut the sponge cake into slices, about ⅓ inch (0.8 cm) thick. Arrange a single layer of cake slices on the bottom of a 2-quart (2 L) baking dish. Cut smaller pieces as necessary to evenly fill any gaps in the layer. Using a spoon, drizzle just enough Alchermes over the spongecake to lightly saturate it. Don’t worry if there’s still come white cake showing in spots, it’s better to use too little than too much. Cover the spongecake with an even layer of white custard, spread evenly from edge to edge.

Create a second layer of cake slices and drizzle it with more Alchermes. Cover this with another custard layer, but this time use the cocoa powder version. Make a third cake layer, drizzled with Alchermes, and top this with a final layer of custard. You can use only the white if you prefer, but we like covering half of the top with white and the other half with cocoa.

Let the zuppa inglese chill overnight in the fridge for best results. Right before serving, dust the top evenly with cocoa powder.

Buon appetito!

If you enjoyed this dessert but haven't tried a homemade tiramisù yet, you owe it to yourself to give our recipe a shot! Still have a sweet tooth? Check out our popular Sicilian orange cake recipe!

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Nov 24, 2023

I followed directions very closely but was stuck with runny liquid after almost 40 minutes of stirring on low. I turned up a small hair, from low to low/med and it curdled in an instant. Any suggestions? I am eager to try again!

Dec 25, 2023
Replying to

It worked! Thank you!


Oct 01, 2023

This is like a version of English Triffle - which is usuallly served in a bowl and can be 'soupy'. So perhaps - English Soup?

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