A Creamy Custard Dream with Spirit

The last thing I need to be doing is cooking anything with loads of eggs, sugar, and whole milk but this is the time of year when all sense goes out the window….along with a healthy dose of will power.  I’ve been pretty good for some years now; I haven’t baked cookies in IMG_2093eons and save for the rare rum cake or Tiramisú my kitchen has been a nearly bake-free zone since my children moved out and on their own ten years ago.

Today found me itching to do something new in the kitchen.  I’m not cooking much these days since hubby is on the road a lot and cooking for one isn’t much fun, or even practical, it seems.  I’m having a couple over for dinner so I thought I’d try something new along with the familiar.

I found one of my favorite Italian cookbooks “Trattoria Cooking” by Biba Caggiano on a shelf in the pantry. Since my move from California I haven’t found a good way to easily display my cookbooks….not that I have that many; most of them are sitting out-of-sight on the pantry shelf.  Sitting on a bar stool with a cup of hot tea in my hands, I looked up the pasta recipe that I had in mind for the dinner.  I’ve made it before and it is quite delicious; Pasta with a meat sauce…a ragu of ground veal, mild Italian sausage, porcini mushrooms and tomatoes.   The pasta in this recipe is supposed to be homemade but I’m truthfully not excited about spending hours in the kitchen.  I suppose I’m a bit shallow but these days I feel homemade pasta is exclusively reserved for very special friends and family.  The folks I’ve invited over may very well become the “special friends variety” in time but it’s really too early to tell. Besides, I learned long ago the hard way that spending hours in the kitchen for one meal with a new friend may not result in exuberant appreciation (just saying).  In any event, I just wanted a simple meal of pasta, a salad, some good wine and bread, and of course, dessert.

“Hmmmm”……I mutter to myself as I flip through the dessert section of Biba’s book.  They all look so….so…..hard.  I could make my Tiramisú…that’s always a hit.  But I’ve made it so many times before; I feel it is time to step outside of the box.  If the effort was a flop I had a plan “B”…my Olio Carli order of panettone arrived earlier this afternoon.  I was eager to try it since I’m over the moon for their extra-virgin olive oil (the official olive oil of The Vatican I might add!).

My eyes settled on a dessert called Zuppa Inglese (literally translating to English Soup).  “Well, this looks interesting,” I think to myself…..

“Well Brando,” I say out aloud to the slumbering, snoring poodle at my feet (he’s clearly not interested in my culinary project)…”let’s give this recipe a whirl; it looks pretty straight-forward…..

….Pound cake layers soaked in a combination of dark rum and cherry brandy with creamy custard in between the layers topped with a chocolate sauce.  What’s not to like?
Yum!  Zuppa Inglese….a concoction believed to date back to WWII when British soldiers   were stationed in Italy.  However, according to information from another Italian celebrity chef, Lidia Bastianich, a variation of this recipe appeared in the famed Pellegrino Artusi cookbook published in 1891, well  before Allied forces were even stationed in Italy.  I realized when I saw the Artusi name that my mamma had a copy of this cookbook in her kitchen for years.  I wonder what on earth happened to it!?

I realize that I don’t have quite all the ingredients so I hop in the car and off I go to the local Fresh Market (infinitely more exciting than Publix, in my humble opinion).  I am able to get most of the ingredients except for the pound cake.  “You’re kidding me,” I moaned to myself.  “I’m going to have to go to another store to hunt down the pound cake.”  Luckily I found the last two loaves at the Super Target not far from my house.  I didn’t think the Target brand of pound cake could be all that good but I reasoned that being drenched in two different kinds of alcoholic beverage would make even liver taste delicious.   After the checkout, I made a quick stop at Starbucks for a latte jolt and I was on my way, up and over the hill, back to the house.

Preparing the custard took time, not to mention 10 egg yolks (way too many if you ask me but I wanted to follow the recipe since it was my first try)…..and a great deal of milk (also too much) and continuous stirring….twelve minutes of stirring to be exact.  It took over an hour to complete the sweet concoction.  I’ll admit to sampling several spoonfuls of the custard in the process. Although it tasted fine, it seemed to be a bit soupy to me.  I had followed the recipe to a “T” and hoped that the custard would set after time in the refrigerator (it did; as the recipe stated, it is meant to be a pudding consistency).

Preparing the Zuppa Inglese; soaking the pound cake in rum and brandy!

Preparing the Zuppa Inglese; soaking the pound cake in rum and brandy!

The dinner went off rather nicely.  My guests seemed to enjoy the pasta dish although did not go back for seconds (well, hubby did but that didn’t count).  Naturally I doubted my culinary abilities; if my dish was indeed scrumptiously delicious then people should have clamored for seconds.  Harrumph.  Not the case.  That meant several left-over meals.

Oh well.

When it came time to serve the Zuppa Inglese, I was quite nervous and admitted as much to my guests, feeling comfortable enough to confess that they were my guinea pigs for this dish this evening.  Naturally there were plenty of oohs and ahhhhs when I set the dish on the table.  I spooned generous servings in little bowls and passed them around and waited for someone to take the first bite before digging-in myself.

“Wowza,” I declared as I took my first bite.  I couldn’t help it.  “Yikes….there is no doubt about it….the alcohol is potent in this dish.”  I thought it rather yummy, and I believe my guests felt the same….although I noted that Cynthia left plenty in her bowl.  Harrumph.  Lots of Zuppa left over.  It will be even more potent tomorrow I imagine.   I try not to think about it because I know that it will be challenging to resist a heaping helping of this creamy dream of a dessert.

Since making this Zuppa, I have come across other Zuppa recipe variations.  I think that next time I will give Lidia Bastianichs’ version a go….It has much less milk, far few eggs, and includes orange zest and cinnamon along with, of course, the requisite rum.  I have bookmarked her website and the recipe; who knows….maybe I have one more Zuppa-making experience in me before the New Year!

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