There are, of course, legends about zuccotto, the dome-shaped, ricotta-filled sponge pudding. One is that Bernardo Buontalenti, the architect who designed ice houses for the Medici family, also designed for them a semifreddo pudding using a metal artillery helmet, or zuccotto, as a form. Another is that, because its shape and sponge (stained with alchermes liqueur) resemble an ecclesiastical zuccotto (scarlet skullcap), it was named after that. Or is it a sponge tribute to Florence’s duomo?
It hardly matters, even if nobody really believes it – the narrative is so attractive that it satisfies in any case. I do like the legend about Buontalenti, though: architect, theatrical designer, military engineer and the man credited with inventing Italian gelato. Where was he when he had the stroke of genius for using a metal helmet as a mold for a frozen cream pudding?
In searching my own house for a suitable mould, I did wonder about using my son’s plastic helmet, but only briefly, before setting on a small one-and-a-half-litre metal bowl. Sadly not copper, which is what Giovanni Righi Parenti suggests in his detailed book about Tuscan food. He gives two recipes for zuccotto – both sponge-lined domes with toasted nuts and candied fruit; one with a filling of cream, the other of ricotta. For soaking the sponge, he offers seven alcoholic options: strega, Bénédictine, rum, Grand Marnier, creme de cacao, cherry brandy, or alchermes – the only one we have at home; a bottle bought four years ago and gathering dust at the back of a bookcase.
According to Darra Goldstein in the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the first recorded recipe for alchermes is from ancient Baghdad, and it called for apple juice, gold leaf, cinnamon, musk, pearls, rosewater, sugar, aloes, and dear (AKA cochineal – a blood-red dye skilfully extracted from a small parasitic insect of the same name). This precious tonic was prescribed for heart palpitations, and as a treatment for melancholy and madness. The recipe then traveled to Europe, where it was adapted, most notably by rennaissance Florence’s Officina Profumo Farmaceutica, into its confectio alchermes, an infusion of cochineal, spices, rose and honey in alcohol, which became a precious renaissance remedy of prodigious strength. In his scandalous 18th-century memoir, the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte recounts how, after being dragged more dead than alive from a carriage after an accident, three glasses of alchermes made him a new man.
Cochineal was and remains an important ingredient and industry in Peru and the Canary Islands. Since 2009, it has to be clearly labeled as a food coloring because it is an allergen for a small number of people. For your zuccotto, of course, you don’t have to use alchermes; you have a mini-bar of options for your sponge dome, a slice of which not only calms and reassures, but also brings joy.
Zuccotto (Tuscan domed sponge pudding filled with ricotta, cream, candied fruit and nuts)
Prep 10 minutes
cooking 50 mins
Freeze 8 hrs+
150g plain flour
500ml whipping cream
50g peeled almondsroughly chopped
50g candied orange, roughly chopped
50g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
Alchermes, strega, Grand Marnier or Benedictine
Cocoa powderfor dusting
Heat the oven to 190C (170C fan)/375F/gas 5. For the sponge cake, use a balloon or electric whisk to beat the yolks and 150g icing sugar until pale and fluffy. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff, then unite them with the yolk mixture and the flour. Turn into a lined tin and bake for 40 minutes, or until firm and golden, then remove and leave to cool completely.
Whisk half the cream until it stands in peaks, then fold in the ricotta, the remaining 50g icing sugar and all the roughly chopped almonds, orange and chocolate.
Cut across the whole cake to produce long, 1cm-thick slices. Line a 20cm-wide one-and-a-half-litre bowl by laying the longest slices in the middle and working outwards, patching as necessary. Sprinkle the sponge with your chosen alcohol. Fill the hollow with the ricotta and cream mixture, then cover with more strips of sponge.
Cover the bowl with clingfilm and freeze for at least eight hours, or overnight. Remove from the freezer 45 minutes before serving, and invert the zuccotto on to a plate. Whip the rest of the whipped cream, use this to cover the dome, then dust with cocoa and serve in thick slices.