Around the World in 80 Plates: Bologna, Italy

Florence and Bologna may be separated by a mere 75 miles or so, but the cultural differences are truly worlds apart. Bologna, Italy, part of the Emilia-Romagna region is nicknamed as both “the learned one” (la dotta) and “the fat one” (la grassa) in reference to its eponymous university and rich cuisine, respectively. A telling indication of what’s to come, Bolognese food pulls no punches, and doesn’t hold back when it comes to meats, cheeses, and pastas. What does this mean for a vegan with a sweet tooth? …Very little. After briefly toying with the idea of a dessert ravioli, I decided to spare you that cutesy interpretation, and look deeper into traditional desserts of the area. Like any city worth visiting, it does have a number of tried-and-true, classic sweets all its own. Nuts, wine, and many eggs seem to color the dessert menu, but what caught my eye was the curiously named zuppa inglese.

You’d be forgiven for believing that you were ordering “English soup” based on the direct translation, but in fact the dish couldn’t be further from that description. Thought to be named after the inspiration of an English-style trifle, it’s actually more like tiramisu, but minus the coffee and plus a more powerful punch of alcohol. Cake or lady fingers are dipped into bright red liqueur known as alchermes, which gains its otherworldly hue from cochineal (beetles.) Luckily, many variations on the theme exist on this very popular Bolognese dessert, and the general consensus is that anything red will do. Rather than an insect infusion, a simple mixture of bright red maraschino cherry juice and ordinary rum fit the bill quite nicely. In the same “anything goes” mentality, some recipes call for vanilla custard, while others lavish their lady fingers with a rich chocolate pudding. Why choose when you can have both? The alternating layers keep each bite interesting, and blend beautifully with the boozy, fruity biscuits.

Tune in to Bravo this coming Wednesday at 10/9c to see how the chefs manage a second round of Italian inspiration!

Zuppa Inglese

1 Batch of Lady Fingers from Vegan Desserts (page 222)

Cherry Syrup:

1/2 Cup Liquid from Maraschino Cherries, or Grenadine
3 Tablespoons Rum

Vanilla and Chocolate Custard:

1/2 Cup Raw Cashews, or 1/3 Cup Raw Cashew Butter
2 1/2 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
5 Tablespoons Cornstarch
2 Teaspoons Arrowroot
1/2 Teaspoon Nutritional Yeast
Pinch Salt
2 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine
1 1/2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
2.5 Ounces Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips or Finely Chopped Chocolate

Chocolate Curls or Shavings
Natural Maraschino Cherries
Dark Chocolate Crisps

You’ll want to prepare the lady fingers first so that they’re completely cool before you use them. Cut them so that the pieces are 2-inches long and will fit flush against the sides of your mold. For the dipping syrup, simply stir together the cherry juice and rum in a small bowl. Set aside.

Place two 2-inch square silicon ice cube trays on a sheet pan for easy maneuvering later on. Have the lady fingers and syrup nearby before beginning to make the custards.

If using a high-speed blender, toss in the cashews and grind them down to a coarse meal. If using a food processor or traditional blender, just plop in the cashew butter. Whole cashews should only be used if you have the horsepower to blend them completely smooth; otherwise, your dessert will be gritty. Gradually pour in the “milk” with the machine running to more easily combine the two. Pause to add in the sugar, cornstarch, arrowroot, nutritional yeast*, and salt. Blend on high until completely smooth. Pass the mixture through a strainer to ensure there are no remaining bits of nuts.

Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and set over moderate heat. Whisk gently until it comes up to a full boil, and then remove the pot from the stove. Stir in the margarine and vanilla, whisking until the margarine has completely melted. Pour about 1/3 of the hot custard into a medium bowl, and to that bowl, add the chocolate. Let that sit for a moment so that the chocolate can melt, and then stir thoroughly until entirely smooth and perfectly chocolatey.

Working quickly, pour 1 – 2 tablespoons of the vanilla custard into the bottoms of each cube mold. Dip the cut lady fingers into the syrup, and press them gently into the molds to cover the bottom layer. Follow that with 1 – 2 tablespoons of the chocolate custard, and then another layer of dipped lady fingers. Finally, pour vanilla custard in to fill the molds to the top. Let cool for at least 30 minutes before moving the sheet pan of both molds into the freezer. By freezing them solid, they will be much easier to remove and handle. Let rest in the freezer for at least 3 hours.

Meanwhile, you can create a quick sauce from the leftover dipping syrup by cooking it over low heat, until it reduces down to a thicker consistency. Just keep a close eye on it and bear in mind that it will continue to thicken a bit as it cools. Set aside.

Once the custard stacks are thoroughly frozen, gently pop them all out onto the tray. The alcohol in the lady fingers won’t freeze, so those layers will have a tendency to separate. Just coax the whole thing back together as needed, and reassemble if necessary. Let the custards thaw at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before serving.

To serve, first drizzle a plate with the reduced cherry syrup, and place one cube of layered custard in the center. Top with a generous handful of chocolate curls or shavings, a chocolate crisp, and a maraschino cherry, to garnish.

Makes 10 – 12 Servings

Printable Recipe

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