Centuries ago, the Sicilians developed a way of packaging sunshine and transporting it to the colder north of Italy. They created burnished yellow balls, pregnant with the zest of the south and as sharp as the rays of the midday sun. I’m talking, of course, about lemons.
Lemons are a major Italian product. Five per cent of the world’s stock are grown in the south of Italy, most notably in Sorrento or Sicily. And it’s at the end of March that they arrive in the rest of the peninsula, just in time for Easter, dressed as yellow eggs. At this time of year in Tuscany, you often see vans, heaving under the fruit, being sold directly by their Sicilian producers. They don’t last long.
It was in Sicily that my obsession with lemons began. Vendors selling granita di limone, lemon slush, outside the ancient Greek temple complexes of Agrigento and Selinunte, prevented me from combusting in the broiling heat which was constantly working to burn my skin even through my t-shirt. I learnt then that the acidity of the lemon becomes pleasant in extreme heat and has an unbelievably refreshing quality. Proof that nature gives us all we need, exactly where we need it. It’s now one of my favourite fruit and my all-time favourite ingredient for gelato.
The zuccotto is the most famous dessert from Tuscany. It’s know to have been created in Florence at the time of Catherine de Medici when it was known as l’Elmo di Caterina, or ‘Catherine’s helmet’. Catherine married the future King Henri II of France at the age of 14, so perhaps the zuccotto was for her goodbye feast in Florence on the way to Paris. Who knows? The modern name zuccotto or ‘little marrow’ is similar to the nickname (zucchetto) for the little skull caps worn by catholic clergy in different colours: purple for a bishop, red for a cardinal, and white for the Pope. It is thought to derive from this or from the shape of the dome of Florence cathedral. Again. Who knows?
The traditional zuccotto consists of a layer of pan di spagna sponge, shaped in a bowl, and filled with ice-cream, usually chocolate and cream. It’s said that this was originally a semifreddo made from ricotta cheese. For my version, I’ve chosen a traditional lemon gelato encased in sponge roll, in the form of a Charlotte Royale. This is a little nod to my time in Paris and to the stamping ground of Catherine de Medici as Queen of France. In fact, I think that the later French charlottes possibly derive from zuccotti served in France at the time of Catherine as a little taste of home.
I’ve chosen a lemon curd to make the sponge roll but also to decorate the zuccotto. The taste is less acidic than that of the gelato and so has a balancing effect. Also, using my blue plate as a background, the balls of lemon curd begin to look like the wreaths of lemons often seen on della Robbia sculptures. Buon appetito!
Zuccotto al limone
Active time: 40 mins
Rest time: overnight
Total time: 12 hours 40 mins
For the lemon curd:
100ml lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornflour
30g unsalted butter
For the sponge:
6 eggs, separated
120g caster sugar
60g plain flour
60g potato flour
For the lemon gelato:
120ml lemon juice
zest of two lemons, grated
200g caster sugar
100ml full fat milk
100ml double cream
an ice-cream maker
Make the lemon curd:
1. Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a bowl until fully combined.
2. Dissolve the cornflour in the lemon juice.
3. Combine the egg mixture and lemon mixture in a saucepan.
4. Add the butter cut into small cubes.
5. Heat the mixture over a gentle flame, whisking all the time until the butter has melted.
6. Continue to whisk for about five minutes until the mixture has thickened and coats the back of a spoon.
7. Allow to cool completely.
Make the sponge:
1. Heat the oven to 200°C.
2. Whisk the eggs whites, adding the caster sugar gradually, until you have stiff peaks.
3. Add the egg yolks and whisk briefly until they are combined with the whites.
4. Sift the flours on top of the egg mixture and gently fold in with a spatula until you have a smooth mixture.
5. Pour the mixture onto a flexipat and smooth with a palette knife until the mixture is flat and even.
6. Bake in the oven for 12 minutes. Allow to cool and then remove carefully from the flexipat.
7. Spread lemon curd generously over one side of the sponge.
8. Carefully roll the sponge into a log shape. Wrap tightly in cling film and refrigerate for a couple of hours.
Make the lemon ice-cream:
1. Put the lemon juice, zests, sugar, and water into a bowl and whisk until the sugar has dissolved.
2. Add the milk and cream and whisk to combine.
3. Place in the ice-cream machine and proceed according to manufacturer’s instructions.
1. Cut the sponge roll into 5mm slices.
2. Line a 20cm glass bowl with cling film.
3. Starting at the bottom, gently line the bowl with the slices of sponge, being careful to cover all the surface. If there are any holes, fill them with the offcuts of sponge.
4. Fill half the bowl with the lemon ice-cream.
5. Add a spoonful of lemon curd to the middle and place one slice of the sponge in top.
6. Fill the rest of the bowl with ice-cream.
7. Cover the top of the bowl with sponge slices and press down until flat.
8. Place the bowl in the freezer overnight.
9. One hour before serving, transfer the bowl into the fridge.
10. Turn the zuccotto out upside down, onto a serving plate.
11. Using a piping bag, cover the top of the zuccotto with balls of lemon curd. Sprinkle with the grated zest of a lime.
12. Cut into slices and enjoy.
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