It's Italy Week! 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.
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