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Little Lemon Cakes Filled with Vanilla Pastry Cream

Serves: Makes 16 cakes


  • Cake:
  • 4 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
  • ½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
  • Finely grated zest from 1 small lemon
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • ⅔ cup (88 g) cake flour

  • Glaze:
  • 2 cups (250 g) confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup or glucose syrup
  • 3 tablespoons hot water
  • ¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  • Chocolate or rainbow diavoletti (sprinkles) or candied cherries, for decoration (optional)
  • 1 ¾ cups (480 g) pastry cream (Recipe follows) cooled

  • Pastry Cream:
  • 2 cups (480ml) half-and-half
  • 1 medium lemon, peel only
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • ¾ cup (150g) granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup (32g) cornstarch


Biting into one of these cream-filled glazed pastries inevitably elicits a sigh, the meaning of sospiri. They might remind you of a whoopie pie, their two cake layers bonded by a creamy filling, but I knew these well before I was introduced to the American dessert. In my hometown we referred to these as “i dulci”—our sweets. In fact, I grew up believing that they were a specialty of our town; it wasn’t until later that I discovered their name, and that they were made and sold throughout Southern Italy.

My uncle Luigi learned to make the dessert from relatives in Serino, near Avellino. He was the sole person in Verbicaro who knew how to make them, and he guarded his secret recipe, allowing nobody to enter his house when he baked. People in town would put in special orders with him when they needed sospiri for an event. He stopped his craft only when a pasticceria opened in town, and people began to buy them there. Even now, nobody would give up a recipe; I was on my own to re-create it. When my mom pronounced mine better than the ones sold in the pasticceria back home, I knew they were ready to include here.

To produce the lightest cakes, have your eggs at room temperature before you begin—leave them on the counter overnight or put them into a bowl of warm water for 10 to 15 minutes. Make the sospiri a day or two in advance; they improve as the cake soaks up the filling and glaze.

To make the cake: beat the egg yolks, ¼ cup of the sugar, and the lemon zest at high speed in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or with a handheld electric mixer, until pale yellow and thick, about 5 minutes.

In a clean bowl using clean beaters, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt, beginning at medium-low speed until the whites are frothy, then increasing to medium speed until they are very thick and frothy. Slowly add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar, a few teaspoons at a time, then beat at medium-high speed until the whites form firm, but not dry, peaks that hold their shape when the beater is lifted.

Use a large spatula to gently fold the egg yolks into the whites until mostly combined but still a little streaky. Sift the cake flour over the batter in six additions, gently folding in each addition, until the flour is completely and evenly incorporated, taking care not to deflate the batter.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C) with rack in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Scoop the batter into a piping bag fitted with 5/8-inch round tip (Ateco#808). Pipe out 2-inch rounds with one inch all around them, forming sixteen rounds on each sheet. Bake just until the tops begin to lightly color, about 12 minutes, rotating the pans top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking.

Let the cakes cool completely on the baking sheets. When they are cool, slide a small offset spatula under the cakes to loosen them, turning them bottom side up and arranging them in matching pairs.

To make the glaze: whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, corn syrup, hot water, and vanilla in a heatproof bowl. Place the bowl over a small pan of simmering water so that the bowl is over, but not touching, the water. Stir the glaze just until it is smooth and warm, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the pan and set it aside to cool slightly while you fill the sospiri.

To make the pastry cream: Bring the half-and-half and lemon peel to a simmer in a small saucepan; do not let it come to a full boil.

Meanwhile, in a 2 to 3-quart heavy, nonreactive saucepan, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until they are completely smooth and slightly thickened. Whisk in the cornstarch until it is completely incorporated.

Use a fork to carefully remove and discard the lemon peel from the half-and-half. Add the half-and-half to the egg mixture in a slow stream while whisking constantly. Return the mixture to medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream boils. Continue to whisk as you boil the mixture for about 30 seconds to make a very thick cream--when you remove the whisk from the pan, you should have to shake or tap it firmly to drop a splotch of cream back into the pot.

Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl. To prevent a skin from forming, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface. Refrigerate until cold, about 4 hours, or up to 3 days. (To quickly chill the cream, fill a larger bowl with ice and water and set the bowl of pastry cream over it, taking care not to slosh water into the cream.)

To fill the cookies: spoon a heaping tablespoon of pastry cream evenly over half of the rounds, then sandwich them with their matching tops. Use a small offset spatula to smooth the pastry cream around the edges. Place the filled sospiri on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet to catch the glaze.

Check the glaze: if it is cool and stiff, warm it over the simmering water, stirring, until it is thick and pourable. Pour the glaze over the sospiri, centering it over the tops so that is spreads to cover them and drips down over the edges. To decorate them as they do in Italian pastry shops, sprinkle the sospiti with diavoletti or place a candied cherry on top.

Let the glaze stand until dry to the touch, about 1 hour. Place each sospiri into a paper cupcake liner, then pack them in a single layer in an airtight container. Cover and refrigerate for 24-48 hour, or up to 4 days, before serving cold in their liners.

Reprinted with permission from Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily copyright © 2013 by Rosetta Costantino with Jennie Schacht. Photography copyright © 2013 by Sara Remington. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

by Southern Italian Desserts

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