Tuesday, April 2, 2013

It's the real thing: I find the true Easter cake made from an ancient recipe

Monday, April 1, 2013
I previously wrote a blog about a cake we found in Toscana two years ago that looked like the Easter cake that my mom used to make. Mom’s cake was based on a recipe she learned from Aunt Nelda, who learned it from Nonna. We knew it came from Italy and was served at Easter time, but we didn’t know the real name or the real Italian recipe. My mom’s recipe was an adaption using American ingredients lemonade, white cake mix and custard pudding.

It turned out the cake we found in 2011 only looked like my mom’s but was very different inside. Today, though, I have finally discovered the true Easter cake of Italy, made by Stefano Mammi’s mother from a recipe passed down through the years in her family. Stefano says that the recipe dates back at least to the early 1800s in his family, and it is still traditionally served on the yellow plates with circus acts painted on them which were made in 1827. As in my family, the cake is served only once a year, on Easter.

Stefano and his zuppa inglese made from a family recipe.
It looks like my mom’s cake; it tastes like my mom’s cake. And please don’t be offended when you look down from Heaven and read this Mom, but it’s even a little better than the cake you made—though that’s only because it’s made with true Italian ingredients that weren’t available to you.

Stefano describes how it’s made and says he and Nancy will try to get me the recipe. It may be difficult, he says, because quite likely his mom has no written directions that list specific amounts. I also finally find out the name: zuppa inglese, which I have heard of because it is a fairly common flavor of gelato which, in fact, is one of my favorites. But while I have had zuppa inglese gelato, I have never before had the actual zuppa inglese on which the gelato recipe is based.

Now that I know the name, I see all sorts of different photos and recipes for zuppa inglese on the Internet. However, the type that Stefano’s mother makes looks more like my mom’s than most of the other photos do, so I want to know how hers is made.

Stefano says she uses savoiardi, a type of ladyfingers found in Emilia Romagna. These are different from the Pavesini ladyfingers used in Tiramis├╣. The ladyfingers are soaked in alchermes, a bright red Italian liqueur, and placed against the inner sides of a bowl. Then the center is filled with crema pasticcera, custard that Nancy says is made with lots of egg yolks, milk, sugar, flour, vanilla and some spices. The use of eggs signifies the arrival of spring, when the chickens begin to increase their production. Some of the crema pasticcera is also mixed with melted chocolate. When it has been refrigerated for a day, it can then be flipped upside-down and will stand upright. Before eating, you pour some liqueur di anisette on top.

Some of the Internet sources also say that zuppa inglese is a specialty of the Emilia Romagna region, where Stefano’s family is from. However, others claim it is a Tuscan dish. Well, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany share a border, so it was common in both regions, although looking at modern recipes, it seems some Tuscans used Genoese spongecake instead of savoiardi. Stefano’s mom makes the center only with crema pasticcera, while some Internet recipes alternate layers of crema and soaked ladyfingers, which is how my mom made it. I also think, based on other recipes I see, that some Tuscans used vinsanto instead of alchermes, though vinsanto wouldn’t have given the same bright red color.

Keep in mind, Stefano says, that every family probably had a slightly different recipe, so there is no agreed-upon standard. Stefano thinks the bright scarlet of the alchermes comes from cherries, but thanks to the Internet, I find it actually comes from ground-up insects called kermes, parasites which suck the sap from pine trees. The sources also mention that alchermes has declined in popularity now that more people know the source of its color. My mom used food coloring.

Why is it called zuppa inglese? Stefano’s mom told him the English visitors to Italy were wealthy and could afford to eat this rich dessert often, the way Italians ate soup. However, Internet sources suggest that the Italians modeled their recipes after the British dessert trifles, which also uses a custard cream mixed with bread and fruit. Inzuppare means “to dunk,” and zuppa is derived from this.

I find it ironic that I have been trying to find out the true name of my family’s Easter cake for many years, and for much of this time I have been enjoying zuppa inglese gelato without realizing the connection. When I get back to Tuscany, I’ll have to see if I can find some zuppa inglese at a pasticceria to see what the local version is like. With the information I have from Stefano and Nancy and additional input from a Tuscan baker, perhaps I can discover a recipe that would have been the most similar to the actual Easter cake from my nonna.

I feel as if making an Easter cake in the traditional way would be a way to honor Nonna, whom I never met but who made so many sacrifices in order for her children and grandchildren to have a better life. Not to mention the more self-serving reason that it’s just about the most heavenly dessert I’ve ever tasted.

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