Zuppa Inglese is a classic Italian dessert, with a very unusual name. The name translates to “English Soup,” which is a little confusing since the dessert is more cake and cream than any type of soup. There are a few explanations for how the dessert came by its name.
The most common given is that English Trifle inspired Zuppa Inglese, which was familiar to Italians because there were so many British residents of Italy. The two desserts have many things in common. Cake or ladyfingers in both are often soaked in alcohol. With Zuppa Inglese, a variety of liqueurs may be used, but in Trifle, the most commonly used is actually sherry. This origin story would place the invention of Zuppa Inglese firmly in the 19th century. Alternately, a Neapolitan fan of Lord Nelson created it in the late 18th century
Another story has more to do with the Italian language that it has to do with culinary invention. "Soup" may be a complete mistranslation of the Italian verb inzuppare, according to The Dictionary of Italian Food penned by John Mariani. The verb may mean to soak up or sop up, and it is true that the cake in the dessert does soak up the alcohol. Mariana contends that somewhere along the line, the entire title was misunderstood, leading to the peculiar name of English soup. This account still considers Trifle as the potential inspiration for the dish.
The dessert is assembled much like trifle, and like the popular tiramisu. Layers of sponge cake or ladyfingers are soaked in rum, or occasionally more exotic liqueurs and are used to line a baking dish. Italian pastry custard, combining eggs, cream or whole milk, sugar, and occasionally orange peel, cinnamon and chopped up chocolate pieces are placed on each layer of soaked cake. You can make the dish with as many layers as you like, and then chill it so that the whole of the dish (cake and cream) form together and the flavors mix. Zuppa Inglese may be garnished with fruit, shaved chocolate or chopped nuts, depending upon preference.
Zuppa Inglese is clearly not a low fat dish, and the alcohol is not cooked. This means it can be pretty heady, especially if the cake is liberally soaked in alcohol. This may be an issue for some parents or for those who don’t imbibe spirits. You could make a nonalcoholic version with a simple sugar and fruit syrup for the cake, but you may want to increase spices to the custard to add more flavor. The dessert is so popular in Italy, and elsewhere that many companies make a delicious gelato flavor called Zuppa Inglese. It’s a good way to try this creative blend of flavors if you don’t have time to assemble a cake.