For being one of the most popular and most recognized desserts in the world, tiramisu’s provenance and time of origin is still a bit of a mystery. There are those who say that it was first created in the Tuscan city of Siena as an homage to the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici in the 17th century. But there are accounts, like the 2007 Washington Post investigation by Jane Black, that place the birth of the dessert in its most plausible context: a he said, she said battle among cities and chefs in northern Italy. Regardless, it makes for a pretty great story.
As for the dessert itself, tiramisu is fairly simple and always tasty. Although there are regional variations, the original recipe has only six ingredients: eggs, sugar, mascarpone cheese, coffee, biscuits, and cocoa. Translated from Italian it literally means “pick me up,” most likely in reference to the shot (or more) of espresso used to soak the cookies.
I first tried my hand at creating tiramisu as a teenager, both as a way to connect with my heritage and impress friends and crushes. It is almost impossible to mess up this dessert, but parents, take it from someone who started young: Keep an eye on your kids during the whisking step. Those egg whites tend to splash all over the place.
According to my mom, who is the de-facto tiramisu expert in my opinion, the most important ingredient is the coffee. Caffe Bocce pastry chef Joy Kuhar agrees.
“Really strong coffee” is what gives tiramisu that familiar kick, according to Kuhar. If the coffee is top quality, even bottom shelf cookies stand a chance. (Not that Caffe Bocce uses bottom shelf cookies—they’re imported straight from Italy.)
The original recipe calls for savoiardi, or ladyfingers—soft and chewy baked treats that originated in the Duchy of Savoy in the 15th century as sweets prepared for the annual carnival festivities. Savoiardi can be found almost everywhere today; my favorites are at Foods of All Nations. They’re pillowy soft and topped with a thin layer of sugar that gives an extra element with a light crunch.
Dip the savoiardi, one by one, into warm espresso, which needs to be brewed especially for the dessert and be free from any external flavor. Once the cookies are soaked, arrange them in the bottom of a cooking pan or loaf terrine, and cover them with a layer of zabaglione, the light, slightly whipped custard—or, as I like to say, the Italian, lighter version of eggnog.
The zabaglione is made in a few easy-but-very-important-to-keep-separate steps. First, separate the egg yolks from the egg whites; whisk together the yolks with sugar until a cream is formed. Next, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the mascarpone cheese—which you can pick up at Foods of All Nations, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s—to the yolk cream, then finally add the whipped egg whites. That’s it. The zabaglione is done.
According to Kuhar, tiramisu is by far Caffe Bocce’s most popular dessert
“Our customers say it’s the best they have ever tried,” she said.
For a little pizazz, Kuhar adds Marsala wine to the mascarpone cream, plus whipping cream and vanilla extract. She then lets it sit for about 24 hours before serving.
“It keeps really well and it gets better and better with time,” she said.
If you’re making it yourself, my mom and I recommend adding some liqueur to the newly formed mascarpone cream. We prefer limoncello or orangecello, both handmade by my mom, or Armagnac, a French brandy. For those not of age, try adding orange juice.
Once the zabaglione is ready, cover the coffee-soaked savoiardi with a generous layer of the cream and repeat the process for as many layers of cookies as desired. The last step is to cover the tiramisu with a thin layer of cocoa powder.
“I use bitter cocoa,” said Kuhar. “Everything is so sweet in the dessert and the cocoa cuts the sweetness.”
One silly, but important note of caution: Once you are ready to dive into that delectable stack of ladyfinger and coffee goodness, be careful not to inhale the cocoa. It happens to me every time.
What’s your favorite dessert in town?
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