English Trifle, Sicilian Way


And finally, trifle time. I was intrigued by Ivonne’s choice for the next theme of Sugar High Friday.  In Italy we have a pudding called ‘zuppa inglese’, literally English soup, and I was quite curious to find out what the English name for it was, if there was any. It turned out the closest dessert is trifle.

Zuppa inglese is a dessert prepared in most restaurants and in many homes, in the Northern region called Emilia Romagna, and neighbours. A concoction of lady fingers or sponge cake, soaked in the typical bright red sweet liquor called alchermes; a thick layer of custard, heavy with egg yolks and cream, often in two versions alternating – chocolate and cream. The visual impact is definitely tacky, with its red, yellow and black striped effect; it has its rustic charms but it is as heavy as a stone, particularly after a proper meal from Emilia – from salumi, among the best in Italy (think culatello and prosciutto di parma, but don’t forget mortadella, just to name a few), to meat-filled tortellini or lasagne, to finish off with some meat dish like roasted pork or boiled poultry.

I have eaten my share of zuppe inglesi, and wanted to go the opposite way with this challenge. I decided I wanted to turn to the most English version I could find. And in order to do that, I turned to the most English of my sources – Jane Grigson, ‘English food’. I did think of Nigella first – you know I have a weakness for her fantastic accent – and there are indeed many nice ideas of hers in form of a trifle. Nigella, being the sensible woman that she is, is of course a fan of this good-looking, easy and versatile dessert you can effortlessly assemble with store-bought ingredients. But I was charmed by the original recipe. Ms Grigson laments that trifle is often tacky  with its glaced cherries decorations, and rarely ‘a pudding worth eating’. Her recipe would bring the joy back to eating it. Macaroons, soaked in fortified wine and brandy, a layer of totally unflavored custard, a layer of raspberry jam, and on top, the ‘Everlasting Syllabub’ by Elizabeth David. I was bound to try it. The recipe is so old fashioned, so imprecise, and it totally works. Just the kind of recipe I love.

However, trouble was on its way, in the form of ingredients. To start with I decided to serve it after the Christmas Eve dinner, while I was cooking a lot of other stuff – well no worries, make ahead and chill, since Ms Grigson swears it only improves with time. But I had underestimated the fact that the recipe is English, and I am very close to Sicilia. The available ingredients are very different. My first problem was the macaroons the recipe calls for, instead of lady fingers. I was not too sure about what she meant – the macaroons I have in my mind don’t soak liquor at all. Anyway I don’t know where to find them in Southern Italy, and making them with no equipment at all and an unknown oven sounded like calling for a lot of trouble and stress. So I decided to replace them with amaretti instead, the hard type: there is a soft one I wanted to experiment with, that in my mind are more similar to macaroons, but I could not find them! Finding the cream was even a worse nightmare: the recipe calls for double and single cream, and in Italy only whipping cream with 32% fat is usually available; after days of tracking and dozens of shops, I settled on some UHT whipping cream – all I could find. A huge shame. To add a bit of creamy goodness I added in some mascarpone, and replaced single cream with full fat milk. Third change, raspberry jam. I don’t think anybody ever saw a raspberry here. And the commercial varieties of jams were screaming ‘I am 99% sugar!’ in a very loud and shrilly voice. I wanted something sweet but tangy.

And then it occurred to me. It is orange season. Sweet. Tangy. Fresh. Perfect with amaretti. I chose a good Marsala as a booze and here it is, my very English trifle, Sicilian way.

The verdict: Overall, a very good trifle, perfect after a heavy meal. The hard amaretti tasted very good but texture wise, they melted completely. I should have soaked them less, and moved some of the booze in the custard. The oranges were a great addition. The trifle was much better the day after, maybe also because of the very high container I chose, which was the only one available. I found the non flavored custard a bit bland, though nice and creamy – maybe adding a bit of Marsala, or an orange rind, would improve it. On the other hand, I was won over by Elizabeth David’s Everlasting Syllabub. I had never made syllabub before, and I was wary of mixing cream and lemon juice, but the result was so good, with such a perfect consistency, that I can’t wait to make it again.


adapted from Jane Grigson, ‘English food’

Serves six


150 gr  hard amaretti
Marsala, about two glasses
1 glass brandy
2 oranges

500 ml full fat milk
2 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
1 heaped tablespoon flour
3 tablespoons caster sugar
150 gr mascarpone

Everlasting Syllabub:

8 tablespoon Marsala
2 tablespoon brandy
rind and juice of one lemon
zest of half orange
60 gr sugar
300 ml whipping cream

Mix 150 ml of brandy with 150 ml of Marsala. With a sharp knife pare all the skin off from the orange, including the thin skin you’ll usually eat, so that the pulp is exposed. Cut it into slices about 1/2 cm thick and put them to soak with the liquors.

Meanwhile start with the custard:  warm the milk until nearly boiling in a pan. Whisk the eggs with the flour until smooth. Pour in gradually the hot  milk, mixing well; return to the fire and keep stirring until the custard is thick (about 5 minutes; this cream can and should reach boiling point, but be careful because it tends to lump. If it does, just use a hand blender to smooth it). Add in the sugar, taste and add more  if you find it is not sweet enough; add the mascarpone, whisk well and let cool mixing now and again.

Soak quickly some amaretti in the liquid. Pack them in the bottom of a tall glass container (a big bowl is ok, or use individual ones if you prefer something more elegant and have them!). Pour a little more soaking liquid on top – about two tablespoons per six amaretti. Cover with orange slices. Add a thick layer of warm custard. Let cool slightly, then add another layer of amaretti, orange and custard. Let it rest for a few hours at room temperature.

To make syllabub: Mix brandy, Marsala, grated lemon zest, grated orange zest, lemon juice and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Pour in cream slowly. Beat with a whip until stiff, but don’t overdo otherwise it might curdle.

Arrange syllabub on top of the trifle. Decorate to taste – some more amaretti are nice. Let it rest a few hours in the fridge before eating.


6 Responses to “English Trifle, Sicilian Way”

  1. Just to let you know that there is a new, revised, e-book edition of “Lunch with Elizabeth David”. The novel involving David and her mentor, Norman Douglas, originally published by Little Brown, is available in all e-book formats and can be sampled at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/29680
    It is also in the Amazon KIndle store.

  2. Ciao Caffettiera! I love that you used amaretti here … so appropriate. Buon anno!

  3. Bueno! Good for you for making this an english trifle a la siciliana! Looks amazing delicious… love your combination of ingredients. Fantastic blog, btw–have really enjoyed it! Ciao, Nina

  4. Please add me to your updates

  5. This trifle sounds amazing! Amaretti and Marsala, the world could not be better.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: