Italian Recipes

Zuppa Inglese

December 6, 2020

This traditional Italian dessert originally came from northern Italy in the Emila-Romagna region, although today it can be found throughout northern and central Italy. Although its true origins are unknown, it is believed that it first appeared in the kitchens of the Dukes of Este in Ferrara in the 16th century. It is said that they asked their chefs to repeat the delicious little things they enjoyed on their trips to England, and Zuppa Inglese was born.

Zuppa Ingles is made by either dipping women's fingers or spreading layers of sponge cake with Alchermes liqueur (also known as Alkermes liqueur). The dessert is put together by alternating layers of biscuits or sponge cake with pastry cream. Some versions, including my recipe, add layers of chocolate biscuit cream too. Zuppa Inglese is then topped off with a layer of meringue, almond slices, or shaved chocolate.

I haven't made Zuppa Inglese at home since we lived in Milan over 20 years ago. The reason I hadn't made this dessert recently was because I wanted to use the traditional light pink spice liquor Alchermes, which is not found in North America. This year I brought home a small bottle of this unique liqueur from Umbria so I could make this dessert for my family for Christmas. Alchermes is a type of Italian liqueur from Tuscany made by infusing alcohol with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla, as well as other herbs and flavorings. The most noticeable feature is the bright pink color, which in the past was made from insect shells. This liqueur is slightly syrupy and has a sweet, tangy taste, which makes it perfect for various desserts. Although often not found outside of Italy, I've included a recipe you can use to make your own Alchermes. Courtesy if you're interested in making your own at home. Mario Batali suggests using Sassolino or Mandorla Amara instead of Alchermes, while other sources suggest using Curacao or Grand Marnier to color the liquor with grenadine syrup. I've even heard of pomegranate liqueur instead of the Alchermes.

I wanted to make this pretty dessert for Christmas Day and I planned to bake the sponge cake beforehand. While I was shopping for the holidays, I found some very soft, tender woman's fingers or Savoiardi cookies at Trader Joe that I knew would work perfectly in my Zuppa Inglese. This dessert can be prepared the day before serving, which makes it ideal for a fun vacation. It is beautifully made in a small clear glass bowl so all the layers are visible. I made a pretty big bite that twelve of us enjoyed on Christmas Day, even though we had leftovers the next day to enjoy.






Buon Appetito!
Deborah Mele revised 2020


Zuppa Inglese:

  • 1 1/2 liters of whole milk

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

  • 6 large eggs

  • 12 tablespoons of sugar

  • 6 tablespoons of cornstarch

  • 5 ounces dark chocolate, chopped

  • Alchermes liqueur (see notes above)

  • 24 Savoiardi cookies


  • 3 ounces of shaved dark chocolate

  • Mint leaves

  • Fresh raspberries

Homemade Alchermes liqueur:

  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom

  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon

  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander

  • 4 cloves

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground star anise fruit

  • 1/2 vanilla pod

  • 2 cups with 90% alcohol

  • 1 cup of water

  • 2 cups of sugar

  • 1/2 cup of rose water

  • Red food coloring or grenadine


  1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan with vanilla and sugar, heat the milk until it begins to simmer.
  2. Take off the stove.
  3. Whisk the eggs and cornstarch in a separate pan, being careful not to create any lumps.
  4. Start slowly pouring the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking continuously to prevent the eggs from curdling.
  5. Set the pan on low heat and whisk continuously until the mixture starts to thicken (about 7 to 8 minutes).
  6. Take the pudding off the stove and divide it into two bowls.
  7. Place the chocolate in a bowl and stir until melted.
  8. Pour a cup of liquor into a bowl along with a cup of water.
  9. Quickly dip the biscuits into the Alchermes mixture, barely moistening them, then layer the biscuits across the bottom of your small bowl.
  10. Spoon some pudding over the biscuits, then put the little thing together, alternating the chocolate and regular pastry cream puddings.
  11. Finish with a layer of pudding.
  12. Chill the snack for at least 4 to 6 hours (or overnight), then decorate with shaved chocolate, mint leaves, and berries before serving.
  13. For the Alchermes liqueur, Mash the cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, 2 cloves, star anise and vanilla.
  14. Put in a bottle with the alcohol and water.
  15. Cap the bottle and shake it twice a day for the next two weeks.
  16. Add enough cold water to the sugar to dissolve it, then add it to the bottle.
  17. Shake well, close again and let rest for another two days.
  18. Then filter, mix in the rose water and it's ready to be bottled and used.

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