De Medici family, Caterina and Zuccotto dessert

Imagine a “dome” of soft sponge cake tinted with fire red that hides inside a soft filling of cold cream and ricotta flavored with citrus peel, almonds and chocolate beans …. The zuccotto the first semifreddo that was invented for Caterina de Medici (1519/1589)
Also called “Catherine’s helmet” because following the legend it was prepared for the first time inside an artillery helmet.
The sumptuous banquets at the Medici court were so opulent and complex that they needed a real planning. Among the various planners we also the architect Bernardo Buontalenti (1531/1608).

Zuccotto Tuscan dish

This simple and tasty dessert still appreciated today using the same ingredients, in my opinion, a concentration of history and how food is connected to it.
In fact, its ingredients reminds us of conquests, explorations and “technological innovations”

Let's start with the most delicious part: the filling.

Ingredients Ricotta and fresh whipped cream.
I see a contradiction in the description of the original recipe which apparently only included ricotta, a cheese that had always existed, much loved by the aristocracy. Although Caterina did not like Ricotta because it was among those ingredients that we no longer considered noble. We will never know the truth!

(jump to the list of ingredients)

The chocolate beans.

Ingredients toasted and broken chocolate beans.
The cocoa beans arrived in Europe brought by Hernán Cortés in 1528 but in the rest of Europe they arrived later around 1580/1585. Chocolate began to be processed in Florence in 1606.

Citrus fruits:

Ingredients: citrus peel probably candied.
The Medici villas were rich in citrus trees, of particular interest was the garden of the “Villa di Castello”.
An exceptional collection of citrus fruits, consisting of about five hundred plants of historical and botanical importance, unique in the world, descendants of the ancient Medici varieties with specimens of over three hundred years of life. It was Giovanni de ‘Medici, who in 1455 had brought bitter orange and lemon plants from Naples, thus probably starting that collection.
We are very lucky to be here right behind the Boboli Gardens, where we can still enjoy one of these citrus groves today.
Specifically, the collection designed by Giulio Parigi in 1612.


Ingredients: ground almonds.
A fruit that has been used since prehistoric times. Considered an aphrodisiac it is found in many medieval preparations and, perhaps also taking into consideration the character of Caterina de Medici, the presence of the almond could not be missing in this dessert!

Sponge cake:

This preparation has a later origin towards the middle of 1700 by Giovanni Cabona a Genoese pastry chef who was commissioned a “new dessert” by the Marquis Pallavicini.
In my opinion, perhaps a dough called “Biscotto di Savoia” was used for the zuccotto, less soft than the sponge cake but, more or less the ingredients are similar.

The Red color.

Ingredient: Alkermes liqueur
Red access given by the presence of Alkermes a typical liqueur loved by the Medici family which, in France, takes the name of “Liquore dei Medici”.
The name derives from the Spanish alquermes which means cochineal from which the red color is extracted. This liqueur is still produced today, by the Antica Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, as per the recipe deposited in 1743 by Fra Bucelli. Contains ethyl alcohol, sugar, water, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, rose water, raspberries and a red dye, originally cochineal (E120), currently sometimes replaced by substances of synthetic origin (E122 – E124 – E132).

Let's finish with the new technology ... the iceboxes!

Yes, because zuccotto, although it is a parfait, not an ice cream, had to be kept in a very cold place.
At first, natural holes and caves or well-protected attics were exploited, then real structures for ice conservation were designed, apparently born from the intuition of Buontalenti.
Today we can see in the Boboli Gardens two of those magnificent “iceboxes” in addition to those dug into the rock up to about 20 meters deep and extend over the entire height of the hill

Zuccotto recipe revisited

including the preparation of the sponge cake (you can also buy it already made you want)

Sponge cake
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 120 g (4.2 oz) of granulated sugar
  • 85 g (3 oz) of 00 flour
  • 35 g (1.2 oz) of potato starch
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • the grated zest of a lemon
For the ricotta cream
  • 600 g (21 oz) of sheep or cow ricotta if not found
  • 150 g (5.3 oz) of granulated sugar
  • 250 g (8.8 oz) of fresh whipping cream
  • 60 g (2.1 oz) of dark chocolate chips (if you find toasted chocolate beans it would be better)
  • 1 TBS of unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 cup of candied citrus peels (oranges, limes, lemons, whatever you prefer)
    half a cup of chopped almonds
For the wet

50 ml (half a glass or more ..) of Alchermes.
You will hardly find this liqueur but you can try to use it (it’s not the same thing but … Vin Santo with a pinch of cinnamon and for the color you can add a few drops of red food coloring)


20 cm (7.87 inch, approx.) Diameter pan for the sponge cake
Zuccotto mold alternatively a glass or round steel bowl of 2 liters (0.5 gallons, approximately) of capacity
Transparent film
Brush to brush the sponge cake with liqueur

For the preparation of sponge cake:

In the planetary mixer, fitted with whips, work the eggs with the sugar until the mixture is light, fluffy and dense.
With the help of a spatula, slowly incorporate the flour and the potato starch that you have previously sifted into the mixture, with slow movements from the bottom upwards, and the salt.
Finally add the grated rind of the lemon.
Pour the mixture into a previously buttered and floured mold, 20 cm (7.87 inches, approximately) in diameter.
Bake at 180 ° (350F) in a preheated oven for 30/35 minutes. After the time has elapsed, take the sponge cake out of the oven and let it cool on a rack.

For the ricotta cream

In a bowl, mix the ricotta, previously drained of its whey, with the granulated sugar.
In another bowl, whisk the fresh cream.
Gently add the whipped cream to the ricotta and sugar mixture.
At this point, take 1/3 of the ricotta cream and put it in another bowl and add to this the unsweetened cocoa powder, which you have sifted first.
Add the candied fruit and almonds to the two creams (in proportion. More in the ricotta cream and less in the cocoa one).
Put the two creams to rest in the refrigerator. In the meantime, start composing the dessert

The final part

Cut the sponge cake into 1 centimeter thick slices.
Roll out the film inside the bowl and line it with the strips of sponge cake previously soaked in the liqueur (for the technique of arranging the slices you can attend the cooking demonstration on Sunday).
Fill the cake with the white ricotta cream, leaving a concave part that will be filled with the cocoa cream
Finally close with the remaining slices of sponge cake.
Cover with film and apply some pressure with your hands to compact the filling well.
Then put the zuccotto in the refrigerator to consolidate for about 6/8 hours.
When it is time to unmold the zuccotto remove the film and place a flat plate on the bowl, turn the cake upside down and remove the rest of the film.
Serve it as it is, if you like, sprinkling it lightly with icing sugar.

Find us in Via Romana 43r in the Oltrarno neighborhood of Florence, between Piazza Pitti and Boboli Gardens.

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