Trifle, Tipsy Laird, and Zuppa Inglese

Posted on April 7, 2012

In the year 1596, French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes was born. France, Great Britain, and what was then called the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands formed an alliance against the very powerful nation of Spain. Dutch explorers Barents and de Houtman made discoveries north into Norway and east into parts of Indonesia. William Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men might have been performing some of the Bard’s best-known comedies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It. And British cookbook author to the gentry Thomas Dawson published The Good Huswife’s Jewell, “wherein is to be found most excellend and rare Devises for conceites in Cookery, found out by the practise of” the author himself.

The good “huswife” or cook in a large gentry kitchen using this book would have learned how to boil larks, “make a tarte that is courage to a man or woman” using the braynes of three or four cock sparrows, bake a classic pye of humbles (deer organ meat), and whip up a caudle of stale ale and egg yolks said to comfort the stomacke.

She also would have read the first known recipe for English Trifle.

Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and sea-

son it with Suger and Ginger, and

Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then

haue it, and make it luke warme in a dish

on a Chafingdishe and coales, and after put

it into a siluer peece or a bowle, and so serue

it to the boorde.

Not much like the layered sponge cake-boiled custard-sherry-whipped cream assemblage we know today as trifle, but within the recipe we see the modern dessert’s precursor, all creamy confection and also served in a large bowl.

Both the recipe’s simplicity and the dish’s custardy creaminess must have appealed to many, for not long after Dawson published his book in the late 16th century, trifle went a-traveling, picking up variations along the way. Eventually cooks all over England adapted it to include their favorite sponge cake and sometimes fruit jams or fresh fruit. Trifle headed due north of London into Scotland where the natives used the same basic structure but added their stamp. Their spiking liquor of choice was single malt scotch whisky or whisky liqueur, and the Scots called the resulting whisky take on trifle “Tipsy Laird.” (Translation: Drunken Lord of the Estate.)

Within only a few years, trifle made its way across the sea to Bologna in the time-honored way, British court cooks sharing recipes with the cooks for Italian dukes and earls. And in Italy the dessert became zuppa inglese, or English soup. Different cakes, different liqueurs, different pastry creams, but the same result – one big creamy mess of a dessert served out of a large bowl.

Today in Italy there are as many variations of zuppa inglese as there are of trifle in England and abroad. Fruit, no fruit; liquor, no liquor; whipped cream, no whipped cream; pan di spagna versus savoiardi biscuits. When my daughter asked for the zuppa for her birthday cake, I made my own favorite version sans alcohol. And here it is, part trifle, part zuppa inglese, and with a nod to tiramisu but nary a tipsy laird in sight. Try it this way, biscuits moistened with brewed coffee, or brush the savoiardi with sherry or kahlua, rum syrup or even grand marnier for an unforgettable birthday or family holiday or formal dinner party dessert.

Zuppa Inglese

  • large glass bowl
  • 2 recipes pastry cream: 1 vanilla, 1 chocolate (recipes follow)
  • 1-2 cups brewed coffee, cold
  • (2) 200 gram packages of savoiardi biscuits (crunchy Italian ladyfingers)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • shaved or grated chocolate for decoration

Make the pastry creams first (recipes below) and allow to cool according to recipe directions.

Pour the cold coffee into a wide shallow dish, such as a baking dish or pie plate.

Dip one side of the savoiardi biscuit into the cold coffee and place, coffee side up, into the bottom of the glass dish. Repeat with 6 or 7 biscuits until the bottom is covered.

Spoon about one-third of the vanilla pastry cream over the biscuits to cover.

Cover the pastry cream with another layer of coffee-dipped biscuits. Again, place these ladyfingers with the coffee side facing up. If your bowl has sloping sides, this second layer will use slightly more cookies.

When the vanilla custard is covered with savoiardi, spoon some chocolate pastry cream over the second layer of biscuits.

Repeat the dipping and layering two more times: another layer of coffee-dipped savoiardi, then enough of the remaining vanilla cream to cover; another layer of coffee-dipped savoiardi, then enough of the remaining chocolate cream to cover. The top layer will be chocolate cream.

Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate the zuppa inglese for about 6-8 hours as the biscuits soften.

For presentation and serving, whip the cup of heavy cream until it is firm but still billowy. Remove the zuppa bowl from the refrigerator and gently spread the cream over the top. Grate a little dark chocolate from a chocolate bar over the top. Alternately you may dust the top with cocoa powder. Candle, no candle – you decide.

Use a large spoon to dig in and serve, keeping the layers as intact as possible.

Two Pastry Creams

For the vanilla:

  • 2 cups whole milk, divided use
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sugar, divided use
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, softened

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup milk, 1/4 cup sugar, and cornstarch.  Add egg yolks and blend well.  Set aside.

Place 1 1/2 cups milk, 1/2 cup sugar, and pinch of salt together in a medium saucepan.  Heat to a gentle boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Remove the boiling milk from the heat and add about a third of the mixture to the egg mixture in the mixing bowl in a slow stream, whisking as you add it.  After the yolks have been tempered with  bit of the hot milk, add the rest to the eggs in a stream, whisking well.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and place over medium heat.  Whisk constantly until the mixture begins to thicken.  When it begins to bubble remove it from the heat.  Still whisking, add the vanilla and butter and whisk until melted and smooth.

Turn the pastry cream into a small bowl and cover the top with a piece of plastic wrap, placing the wrap right on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming.  Set aside to cool.

For the chocolate:

  • 2 cups whole milk, divided use
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sugar, divided use
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, softened
  • 2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped finely

Make chocolate pastry cream in the same way as you made the vanilla cream.  When time to add the butter and vanilla to the hot, thickened custard.  Stir well to blend, then whisk in the chopped chocolate.  Whisk until thoroughly melted and well mixed.

Turn the pastry cream into a small bowl and cover the top with a piece of plastic wrap, placing the wrap right on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming.  Set aside to cool.

©2012  Jane A. Ward