22 August 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Zuccotto Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – I’ve been obsessed this entire week with the idea of making a zuccotto. I’m thinking about having a dinner party in the not too distant future and I thought zuccotto might be a good dessert to serve since I can make it ahead of time and freeze it. But when I started looking for a recipe, things got complicated.
 Pasticceria Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano, Genova
It seems there are as many variations of zuccotto as there are stars in the sky. Every town in Italy seems to have its own version. There’s the Tuscan zuccotto, the Sienese zuccotto, the Florentine zuccotto, the Neapolitan zuccotto, the chocolate zuccutto, the cherry, the ricotta, the ice cream, the whipped cream, the zuccotto triffle and even baby zuccotto. There were so many recipes from so many sources I was beginning to think I was the only person in the world who had never tackled this Italian specialty.

In the Italian cookbook world a zuccotto is a dome shaped dessert made with sponge cake soaked in liqueur and filled with custard or whipped cream and chocolate.  In the real world the cake part can be either cut up sponge cake or ladyfingers that have been brushed or dipped in a variety of liqueurs or flavorings. The cake is used to line a bowl or mold which is then filled with…. and this is where 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 not.
 Zuccotto with Almonds
The recipe made sense, even without quantities, and I was happy until I came across  recipes for Sicilian Cassata that sounded very much like the recipes for zuccotto. Then I was confused.

From the recipes I found it seems cassata and zuccotto are very similar in construction and ingredients, maybe brothers from different mothers? But as much as they are similar, there are also major differences between them. First of all, a cassata isn't dome shaped, which zuccotto is, and secondly, a cassata is covered with marzipan and heavily lah dee dah decorated, which zuccotto is not.  
 Cassata is Much More Lah Dee Dah, Don't You Think?
The zuccotto got it's name from the word zucca, which means pumpkin in Italian, probably because it looks a little like a pumpkin. But zucca is much more than just pumpkin. For example, you might call someone a zuccone or pumpkin head if you though they were not particularly bright. But in the case of this cake, the name probably comes from its resemblance to the domed, metal helmets 15th century Italian soldiers wore to protect their heads (zuccas) when they went into battle. Or the name may have come from the skull cap priests wear to cover their zuccas. Both sound reasonable to me, and definitely very Italian.

But moving past the origin of the name, here is the zuccotto recipe I chose. It’s a compilation of many recipes I found on the internet.


Dome: 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 to facilitate unmolding the cake.

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, place 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.

Filling: 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 really disgusting.

I put the whipped cream with citron and chocolate bits in the ladyfinger lined bowl first, then I put the chocolate whipped cream on top of it. I closed the plastic wrap around the entire cake, put it in the freezer and crossed my fingers.
Zuccotto on its Way to Lah Dee Dah
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 the cake sit out for about half an hour, which technically would have made it a semi-freddo if I had added marscapone, and then, because I was dying of curiosity, I cut a wedge and put it on a plate.

It looked okay but the first bite of the cookie cover 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 actually tasted 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 really bad.

  Another Variation on the Theme
I don’t know if I’ll make it again, 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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