Zuppa inglese: trifling English

Article published on Feb. 26, 2008
Article published on Feb. 26, 2008

Zuppa inglese ('English trifle') is a lightly alcoholic custard served with biscuits. I cannot tell you why this dessert is called ‘English’. However, I can offer you a few possible explanations and let you know the results of my research and wish you good luck.

The dessert is documented as early as the late 1800s in Pellegrino Artusi’s ‘bible’ of Italian cooking. It is most popular in Romagna and Tuscany. My grandmother, who lives in Romagna, told me that her mother before her also knew about the dessert.

However, there was some English influence very early on. In fact, the Italian zuppa seems to be an adaptation of an Anglo-Saxon dessert from the Renaissance: the trifle, considered a little like the mother of all desserts, made with custard and sponge cake sprinkled with alcohol (for example Cadiz Sherry).

In the ancient Dukedom of Ferrara, the British were offered trifles made from local ingredients at diplomatic meetings. The same thing happened in Tuscany. Over time, this modified trifle took on the name zuppa inglese.

Today, this dessert can be found in many Italian regions, but remember, it is a home made dessert and it does not last long. If people try to sell you an industrial sized portion, don’t buy it.

Recipe for beginners with little time, inclination or experience

'But isn't zuppa inglese dirty water served with coffee here in England?' an Italian asks himself in a restaurant in London after ordering (Illustration: Antoine Heully)


4 eggs/ 4 tablespoons of flour

4 tablespoons of sugar/ 50g of cocoa powder

Milk/ 1 lemon zest

Savoiardi biscuits (or ladyfingers)

Alchermes liqueur (or Amaretto DiSaronno)

a bottle of sweet red wine

Turn on the stereo and put on your favourite CD, but nothing too loud or heavy as this will distract you from making the custard; put the egg yolks, sugar, flour, milk and lemon zest in a bowl and mix for 10 minutes

Pour the mixture into a saucepan and warm over a low heat - stir continuously or the custard will stick to the bottom

As soon as the liquid thickens, remove from the heat and divide equally between two containers - add the cocoa to one of the containers

At this point, pour yourself a glass of wine, you deserve it. Next, set out some sundae glasses and line them with the biscuits soaked in alcohol (you can use as much as you like)

Half fill the glasses with the plain custard and top up with chocolate custard

Put the glasses in the fridge. Serve the zuppa inglese chilled, accompanied by the red wine