TOf course there are legends here Zuccotto, the dome-shaped sponge cake filled with ricotta. One of them 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 the mold. Another reason is that because its shape and sponge (colored with Alchermes liquor) resemble an ecclesiastical zuccotto (scarlet skullcap), it was named after him. Or is it a sponge homage to Florence’s Duomo?
It hardly matters, even if nobody really believes in it – the narrative is so attractive that it is definitely satisfying. However, I do like the legend about Buontalenti: architect, theater designer, military engineer and the man credited with inventing Italian ice cream. Where was he when he had the stroke of genius to use a metal helmet as a mold for a frozen cream pudding?
While researching a suitable mold in my own home, I considered using my son’s plastic helmet, but only briefly before settling on a small 1.5 liter metal bowl. Unfortunately not copper, as Giovanni Righi Parenti suggests in his detailed book on Tuscan cuisine. He gives two recipes for zuccotto – both sponge-lined domes with toasted nuts and candied fruit; one with cream filling, the other with ricotta. To soak the sponge, he offers seven alcoholic options: Strega, Bénédictine, Rum, Grand Marnier, Crème de Cacao, Cherry Brandy or Alchermes – the only one we have at home; a bottle bought four years ago gathering dust behind a bookshelf.
According to Darra Goldstein in the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the first recorded recipe for alchermen dates back to ancient Baghdad and called for apple juice, gold leaf, cinnamon, musk, pearls, rosewater, sugar, aloe, and dear (AKA Cochineal – a blood-red pigment cleverly extracted from a small parasitic insect of the same name). This precious tonic was prescribed for heart palpitations and to treat melancholy and insanity. The recipe then traveled to Europe, where it was adapted in Florence, notably by the Renaissance Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Alchermes confectionery an infusion of cochineal, spices, rose and honey in alcohol that became a precious Renaissance remedy of astonishing potency. In his scandalous 18th-century memoir, librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte recounts how, after being pulled more dead than alive from a carriage following an accident, he drank three glasses of alchermes made him a new person.
Cochineal was and is an important ingredient and industry in Peru and the Canary Islands. Since 2009, it has had to be clearly labeled as a food coloring because it is an allergen for few people. Of course, you don’t have to use alchermen for your zuccotto; They have a minibar of options for your sponge dome, a piece of which not only calms and soothes, but brings joy.
Zuccotto (Tuscan sponge cake filled with ricotta, cream, candied fruit and nuts)
preparation 10 mins
Cook 50 mins
Freeze 8 hrs+
200grams of powdered sugar
150g plain flour
500ml of whipped cream
50g peeled almondsroughly chopped
50g candied orange, roughly chopped
50g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
AlChermes, Strega, Grand Marnier or Benedictines
cocoa powderfor dusting
Preheat oven to 190°C (170°C fan oven)/375°F/Gas 5. For the sponge cake, beat the egg yolks and 150g of the icing sugar with a balloon or whisk until pale and fluffy. In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff, then combine with the yolk mixture. Place in a lined tin and bake for 40 minutes or until set and golden brown, then remove and allow to cool completely.
Whip half the cream until peaks form, then fold in the ricotta, the remaining 50g of the icing sugar and any roughly chopped almonds, orange and chocolate.
Cut the whole cake in half to obtain long slices 1 cm thick. In a 1.5 liter bowl, 20cm wide, lay out the longest slices in the center and work outwards, patching as needed. Spray the sponge with your chosen alcohol. Fill the cavity with the ricotta and cream mixture and cover with more biscuit strips.
Cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. Remove from the freezer 45 minutes before serving and invert the zuccotto onto a plate. Whip the remaining whipped cream, cover the dome with it, dust with cocoa and serve in thick slices.