Zuccotto is Catherine’s secret

Zuccotto is Catherine’s secret

With roots in the Renaissance, this liqueur-soaked, ricotta-filled dessert exudes timeless charm and is truly fit for a queen, writes Sajith Vengateri

Zuccotto with Tuscan dessert wine. PHOTO BY AUTHOR

What do lingerie and semi-frozen desserts have in common? Well, as it turns out both were rumoured to have been introduced to France and then spread to the rest of the world by an Italian princess in the 17th century. How’s that to get you all fired up for a bit of action in the kitchen this weekend?

Zuccotto is a quintessential Renaissance-era dessert from Florence in Tuscany, shaped like the majestic duomo of Florence Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. It was invented by Bernardo Buontalenti, a famous Renaissance architect for a banquet in honour of one of the 17th century’s influential women, Catherine de Medici. Lady Catherine was born into the historic Medici family in Florence, later became queen of France and legend has it that she introduced many culinary and cultural traditions, like the order of courses in a dinner menu from savoury to sweet, forks on the table and even intimate apparel for ladies! Though French balk at the notion that an Italian lady taught them how to eat and dress well, the jury is still out if this legend is just a myth.


If you plan to make Alkermes, the Italian liqueur that really makes this cake stand out, you need to start one month before the day of making the Zuccotto. The recipe does look long and daunting, but it’s well worth the effort and isn’t as complicated as it looks.


600 ml pure alcohol or a neutral spirit like vodka

300 ml pure water

10 gm cochineals crushed

2 gm cloves

10gm cardamom

10 gm cinnamon

10 gm coriander seeds

5 gm mace

3 gm star anise

1 bay leaf

5 gm orange peel

1 vanilla pod

600 gm sugar

500 ml pure water

100 gm rose water


Crush all spices in a mortar and fill up a big glass jar with alcohol, 300 ml of water and mix well. Infuse for 3 weeks. This liquid should be crimson red by now. Melt the sugar and 500 ml of water, cool down and add to the alcohol mixture. Infuse for another week, strain through a cheesecloth. Add the rose water and Alkermes is ready to be used. You can substitute cochineals with food colour or Rooh Afza syrup (adjust the sugar content accordingly.)

Zuccotto Italian
sponge cake


100 gm all-purpose flour

30 gm cornflour

100 gm castor sugar

5 eggs whole

5 ml vanilla essence

1 orange zested and juiced

Preheat the oven to 160 c


Whisk eggs and sugar together in an electric beater for 8 minutes or triple in volume. Mix in orange juice, zest and fold in flour and cornflour. Pour the batter into a cake tin and bake at 160 c. Make this sponge cake one day in advance.


Italian meringue

125 gm egg whites

200 gm plus 50 gm castor sugar

50 ml water

Heat 200 gm sugar and 50 ml water together in a heavy bottom pan. While the sugar syrup is heating, whisk the egg whites and 50 gm sugar in an electric mixer till soft peaks are formed. Once the sugar syrup reaches 118 c, slowly pour the hot syrup into the whipped egg white. Pour the mix on the side of the mixing bowl and not directly on the whisk attachment. Increase the mixing speed to high and whisk till you get a pearly white, silky smooth mixture, for about 6 minutes. Transfer the bowl to the refrigerator.

Saffron pastry cream


200 ml milk

40 gm sugar

20 gm cornflour

1 egg

Pinch of saffron

Zest of one orange


Boil milk, cream sugar, egg and cornflour together in a bowl, add 1/3 of the milk to the egg mixture, whisking well to make a smooth cream. Add the rest of the milk and bring the pot back to the stove. Cook on a slow heat, whisking constantly till the custard thickens. Pour the pastry cream into a bowl and refrigerate.

Whipped fresh cream

250 ml fresh cream

Whisk in a bowl till soft peaks are formed and refrigerate.

Saffron semifreddo

50 gm candied citrus (optional)

Use 2/3 of Italian meringue. 2/3 of whipped cream and all of the saffron pastry cream, candied citrus, fold gently together using a spatula and refrigerate.

Chocolate Semifreddo

25 gm cocoa powder

Fold in the cocoa powder with the rest of the Italian meringue and whipped cream, and refrigerate.


Alkermes: 100 ml

Water: 100 ml

Use glass or stainless steel bowls as your mould. Five bowls of 250 ml capacity would be ideal. Line the bowl with plastic wrap to make unmoulding easier.
Slice the sponge cake into thin strips and taper one of the ends. Cut out a few round pieces for the top and bottom of the bowl. Mix equal amounts of water and Alkermes in a bowl. Can use a simple sugar syrup if you want to go non-alcoholic. The leftover Alkermes can keep in your pantry, for the next batch of Zuccotto. Brush the sponge cake strips with Alkermes syrup and line the bowls. Start with a small round at the bottom and overlap the strips along the sides to cover the bowl. Once you have lined all the bowls, it’s ready to be filled with the semifreddo mixtures.

Fill the saffron semifreddo mixture till 2/3 of the capacity of the sponge cake lined moulds. Fill the rest of the space with the chocolate semifreddo and cover with the larger round piece of sponge cake. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for 2-3 hours. There will be plenty of leftover semifreddo mixture to binge on while you are waiting for the Zuccotto to set!! Unmould the Zuccotto onto a serving plate and brush with more Alkermes syrup. Best served semi-frozen with a glass of Tuscan dessert wine.

(The author is a chef based in Brisbane, Australia. An exponent of regional Italian cuisine, he’s from the class of ‘94 IHM Kovalam and loves playing with fire. He’s an avid permaculture gardener and Border Collie whisperer.)