Emma, Lady Hamilton, was an English blacksmith’s daughter who made her way into the nobility via the unlikely avenue of a stint as a teenage table-top dancer at a dissolute country house party. Clever, charming and extraordinarily beautiful, the young Emma was a muse to 18th-century portraitist George Romney before going on to marry the British envoy to Naples, the much older Sir William Hamilton. Before long—and with the elderly Hamilton’s acquiescence—she scandalised England by becoming the mistress of naval hero Horatio Nelson.
It is possible that the enterprising Emma was also the inspiration for the much-loved Italian pudding zuppa Inglese—literally, “English soup”. In the Italian city of Ferrara, the dish’s birthplace, one story goes that the Duke of Este was hosting a visit from the Hamiltons. Having heard that her ladyship was fond of a drink and homesick for English trifle, the duke’s cooks concocted a boozy dessert of sponge biscuits dipped in liqueur and layered with custard. Early versions used only vanilla custard and a liqueur called Alchermes but over time the dish has evolved to include variations using chocolate custard, different liqueurs, espresso coffee and fresh or preserved fruit.
This recipe is inspired by one of Melbourne’s favourite mistresses of home-style Italian cookery, Rosa Mitchell. It can be assembled in a single bowl or individual pretty glasses, and is best made a day or half-day ahead to allow the liquids to soften the biscuits. The size of the dish will guide the number of layers you opt for. Because it’s a make-ahead dessert, it’s perfect for dinner parties—or house parties. Dancing on the table optional.