The Traditional Italian Dessert You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

It's Italy Week! All week long, we're celebrating everything Italian and Italy-inspired: recipes, stories, and travel tips. Introducing zuccotto: It's like tiramisu, in bowl-form.

Between 20 to 30 percent of what I learned in pastry school was guess work. And at the beginning, it was more like 60 percent. To be fair, I was in a foreign country, studying at the Florence University of the Arts in Florence, Italy. The chefs spoke in either broken English, an English-Italian combination, or Italian that was way, way too fast for me—with only a couple semesters of language classes under my belt—to comprehend. 

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In order to follow along, I’d look at the syllabus every night and do some research on the next day’s lesson. Which is how, while familiarzing myself with the second day of class’s materials, I came across this video of Gennaro Contaldo for Jamie Oliver’s FoodTube channel demonstrating how to make zuccotto. Wait, z-z-z-z...what? 

A traditional Tuscan dessert, originating in Florence, zuccotto (zoo-cot-toe) is basically a sponge cake dome filled with whipped cream. It’s kind of like a molded version of a trifle. In the video, Gennaro uses ladyfingers soaked in amaretto and a filling of ricotta, sugar, and chocolate chips.

The next day, when one of the chefs asked if anyone knew what zuccotto was—or at least that’s what I think he said—my arm shot up. I began to explain Gennaro’s zuccotto recipe, but as soon as I said “ladyfingers,” he stopped me. “No, no. Never ladyfingers. Always ze cake sponge.” I then was schooled (...literally) on how to make zuccotto.

Here’s what I learned—and how to make zuccotto without a recipe:

1. Get the right equipment.
Grab a domed bowl or smaller dome-like molds for individual zuccotti. Line ‘em (or it) with cling wrap, if you wish. This is optional, but if you’re scared the zuccotto won’t unmold, go forth and get clingy. 

2. Prepare the cake sponge—wait, sorry, we mean sponge cake.
You can either make or buy sponge cake. If you make your own, try baking the cake in a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet (about 11- by 17-inches) instead of a cake pan to produce a thinner cake. Then, you’ll want to cut the cake into rectangular stripes or squares about 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. 

Although my chef would say it’s untraditional, I do love a zuccotto made with ladyfingers. Soak the ladyfingers in enough amaretto to moisten them, then proceed with zuccotto making as described in step 4, skpping the simple syrup steps and using the soaked ladyfingers in place of the sponge cake.

3. Make a alcohol-y simple syrup for soaking.
You know how to make a simple syrup, and now we’re going to spike it. 

In Tuscany, a liquor called alchermes is traditional. Back in the day, alchermes was used medicinally to treat ailments like heart palpitations. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the bright red liquor fell out of popularity when folks found out its red color came from Kermes—a red dye derived from small insects. Now, it’s used primarily in pastry applications. 

Personally, alchermes isn’t my favorite—it tastes too heavily of cloves. If you want to try it, go for it. But if you’re like me, use amaretto (or even brandy) instead. Whatever your liquor, add a splash or two to taste once the simple syrup’s off heat. 

4. Mix your filling.
You can use whipped cream, vanilla-flavored whipped cream, or a whipped cream sweetened with confectioners' sugar. 

As for mix-ins, gently fold in chocolate chips, fruit (raspberries! blueberries!), toasted and chopped nuts, bits of toffee, or chopped maraschino cherries. Add one, add two, add three: It’s your zuccotto. Do want you want. 

5. Line the bowl with cake.
Brush both sides of the cake rectangles/squares with the liquor-simple syrup mixture and use them to line the inside of the bowl/molds, trying to place the pieces in the same direction. Keep in mind that you’re going to see the pattern once it’s unmolded!

You can press down gently to pack the cake down a little and ensure that the bowl is completely lined, with the pieces snug against one another. It’s okay if they occasionally overlap. Use small pieces of syrup-brushed cake to fill any gaps.

6. Assemble and wait (and wait, and wait…)
Now, add the filling to the cake bowl. Smooth the top of the whipped cream for an even surface.

Take the remaining cake rectangles squares, brush with the liquor-simple syrup mixture, and place over top of the whipped cream—covering the cream completely and encasing the zuccotto.You can brush this final cake layer with a little more simple syrup, if you like, to make sure it’s completely soaked.

Cover with plastic wrap, lightly press down, and refrigerate 12 hours or overnight.

7. Decorate, admire, and devour your creation.
The next day, unmold your zuccotto (or zuccotti).


Serve with crème anglaise, ganache, a dusting of cocoa powder, more nuts, fruit, chocolate, or nothing at all.

Photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • miznic
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I fall in love with every sandwich I ever meet.


miznic April 7, 2016
O_O ...I had no idea I needed this dessert in my life. It's hypnotizing...
Rosemarie S. September 22, 2015
In step six, how long do you wait ( and wait and wait)?
cindy September 21, 2015
what kind of simple syrup can be made with no alcohol
Enid B. September 20, 2015
I know this dessert and absolutely love it! Whenever I see it in a dessert case, I go for it! Thanks for sharing!
Madeline P. September 20, 2015
For those that wish to have a specific recipe, there is one in Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I have followed that recipe for years and always got raves for the results.
Matthew C. September 20, 2015
Thanks Madeline. I've got the book and really appreciate recipes that are recipes rather than blogs pretending to be recipes.
Bernard C. September 20, 2015
I am so looking forward to putting this together! Definitely favor the "guide" approach to creation as the 'recipe' is sometimes too restrictive. This will make upcoming Holidays a 'treat!'
keith G. September 20, 2015
Jamie Oliver has subsequently published a related recipe using panettone and ice cream: An absolute must try, it's wonderful, flexible and easy. It also has the advantage of being kept in the freezer until needed!
Catherine G. September 20, 2015
Can hardly wait to make this. Is it okay to use the amaretto when serving to children too. Also bowl is @13 x 4 deep. How many cakes etc would I need for that please. Also would I need a litre of whipping cream. Thanks.
Riddley G. September 20, 2015
I would say it's completely okay—as long as children enjoy the flavor and you're comfortable serving it to them! I'd say 1 cake a liter of whipping cream will be fine. However, it never hurts to have extra lying around :)
Alice S. September 17, 2015
Do you use the soft or the hard ladyfingers for this?
Riddley G. September 20, 2015
either! if they're hard, just soak them in a little amaretto for a bit to soften them up.
Melanie R. September 16, 2015
can't find the recipe..where did you post it? I scrolled up and down...
Riddley G. September 17, 2015
Hi Melanie! There isn't a recipe. The article's meant to act as a guideline so you can experiment and go your own way!
Matthew C. September 16, 2015
Recipes without the recipe are the saddest recipes.
AntoniaJames September 14, 2015
Did you know that zuccotto means "little pumpkin" in Italian? ;o)
Riddley G. September 14, 2015
I did! It's an adorable name :)
felisalpina September 14, 2015
So this is what it's called! I live in Germany, and my mother-in-law has made this for ages - we call it 'cake bowl'. Since we have no Italian blood running in the family, I was never aware that it's from there, allegedly. Funny how small the world is.
Sarah J. September 15, 2015
I would love to eat cereal out of a cake bowl.
Riddley G. September 17, 2015
Love that story!
Bella B. September 14, 2015
I have a great family recipe for this. I think I should make it soon. Mine is a little different but so amazing.

xoxoBella |
Bevi September 14, 2015
I can't find your recipe. Would you please provide a specific link? Thanks.