06 May 2010


SARONNO, Italy - I’ve been obsessed all week with the idea of making a zuccotto. I’ve got company coming for dinner next week and I thought it might be a good dessert to make since I can make it ahead of time and freeze it. I started looking for a recipe on Monday - and that’s when things got complicated.

Zuccotto with sponge cake

It seems there are as many variations of zuccotto as there are stars in the sky. Every town in Italy seems to have it’s own version. There’s the Tuscan zuccotto, the Sienese zuccotto, the Florentine zuccotto, the Neapolitan zuccotto, the chocolate zuccutto, cherry zuccotto, ricotta zuccotto, ice cream zuccotto, whipped cream zuccotto, zuccotto triffle and even baby zuccotto. There were so many recipes from so many people I was beginning to think I was the only person in the world who had never tackled this Italian speciality.

In non-technical, non-cookbook terms a zuccotto is a molded cake filled with both chocolate and vanilla filling. Now the cake part can be either cut up sponge cake or ladyfingers that have been brushed or dipped, depending on the recipe, in a variety of liqueurs or flavorings. The cake part is used to line a dome like bowl or mold which is then filled with…. and here you have your choice of ingredients. Then the whole business is put into the freezer for at least 3 hours, unmolded upside down on a plate and decorated – or maybe not.

While the word zucca actually means pumpkin in Italian, it is used in other ways as well. For example you might call someone a zuccone or pumpkinhead if you though they were not particularly bright. But in the case of this cake the name probably comes from it's resemblance to the domed, metal helmets 15th century soldiers wore to protect their heads (zucca) when they went into battle. Or the name may have come from the skull cap priests wear to cover their “zucca”. Both sound reasonable and very Italian. It all made sense and I was happy until I came across some recipes for Sicilian Cassata that sounded very much like the recipes for zuccotto.

Sicilian Cassata

From the recipes it seems cassata and zuccotto are very similar in construction and ingredients. Two major differences are a cassata isn't shaped in the form of a dome, which zuccotto is, and secondly it is covered with marzipan and heavily decorated, which zuccotto is not. But I must resist the temptation to digress as the ingredients for zuccotto are on the kitchen table waiting for me.

Here is the zuccotto recipe I used. It’s a compilation of the many recipes I found on the internet.

Line a bowl (approx. 9-inches wide by 4-1/2 -inches deep) with plastic wrap. Allow several inches of the wrap to hang over the sides of the bowl.Lightly brush each of the ladyfingers with liqueur (I used rum because I had some in the house) as you add them to the bowl, placing them sugared side outwards. Fill the bottom and any gaps with liqueur-soaked trimmings so that the lining is completely solid. The tops of the ladyfingers should be even with the rim of the bowl. Chill for 30 minutes.

I used whipped cream for the filling, it seemed the easiest choice. I whipped one pint of cream with some powdered sugar and vanilla and divided it into two bowls. In one bowl I added candied citron and bits of shaved chocolate. In the second bowl of whipped cream I added cocoa powder (bitter) and chopped pistachios. It looked disgusting. I put the whipped cream with citron and chocolate bits in the bowl first, then I put the chocolate whipped cream on top of it. I closed the plastic wrap around it, put it in the freezer and crossed my fingers.

Three hours later I took it out of the freezer and unmolded it on a serving dish. The minute I did I knew I was in trouble. The cake part, because it had been soaked in rum, was still mushy. It makes sense: alcohol does not freeze. I let it sit out for about half an hour, technically it is a semi-freddo, and then because I was dying of curiosity I cut a wedge and put it on a plate.

Zuccotto with cherries

It looked okay but the first bite of the crust confirmed my worst fear. The taste of alcohol was overpowering. I should have brushed the ladyfingers with rum, not soaked them. Then I tasted the filling. That was actually better than I expected and when I put the two together, the rummy cake and the filling, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but….it wasn’t really bad.

I don’t know if I’ll make it again next week for my guests, but if I do I think I’ll try the sponge cake instead of the ladyfingers, and most certainly I will use a lot less rum. If any of you have ever made zuccotto, your suggestions to better zuccotto making would be greatly appreciated.

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