Tiramisu is a polarizing dessert. Mention it, and people may howl in glee or back off in disgust – there is no middle man. In “The Oxford Companion to Italian Food,” author Gillian Riley is bluntly: “At its best, in small amounts, a good dessert, if not a crass, overrated indulgence.”
With all due respect, Ms. Riley, I disagree.
Tiramisu, which is loosely translated from Italian as “pick me up,” can be transcendent, restrained, and dare I say cloud-like when done correctly. It should taste sweet, creamy, slightly alcoholic and bitter at the same time.
“When tiramisu is really good, the result is greater than the sum of its parts,” says chef Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger in New York City. He first learned how to do it at the now closed Galileo restaurant in DC, which at the time was run by pastry chef Laurie Alleman Weber. Headley always prepares tiramisu as he has been taught: wrapped savoiardi (lady’s finger cookies, which he prefers to the homemade sponge), mascarpone, egg yolks, a little dark rum and cocoa in powder.
“The slight bitterness of the coffee, the sweet dairy flavor of the mascarpone – it’s a good balance of luxury ingredients and stuff you can get in a grocery store,” Headley said. “I find the tiramisu making process therapeutic: soaking the savoiardi then stacking them in a saucepan.
The origin story of the dessert is unclear, but its roots date back to the 1960s in Treviso, Italy. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that it stormed New York City. Soon, hip restaurants across the United States – Italian or not – offered it.
Tiramisu has become such a part of the zeitgeist that he was mentioned in Nora Ephron’s 1993 film, “Sleepless in Seattle,” when the protagonist, played by Tom Hanks, was about to dip his feet in the swimming pool. dating, asks his friend, played by Rob Reiner, for advice. “Tiramisu,” Reiner said randomly after giving him some advice. “What is tiramisu?” Hanks asks. “You’ll find out,” Reiner replies. “A woman is going to want me to do this to her, and I’m not going to know what it is!” Exclaims Hanks.
Tiramisu’s popularity has grown into a double-edged sword. As more and more restaurants served it, including national chains, many began to cut corners.
The dessert has so few ingredients that when it isn’t of good quality, it shows – ending in a cloying candy.
We all had bad tiramisu.
Its basic components are universally accepted. Tiramisu is made with lady’s fingers (or sponge cake) dipped in – or brushed with – an espresso often enriched with alcohol, and covered with a whipped and sweet mixture of mascarpone-yellow.
Everything else is up for debate.
Some argue that egg yolks should be cooked gently in zabaglione, while others, like Headley, insist on raw yolks. There are versions that fold whipped cream or beaten egg whites into mascarpone as a lightener (and probably to prevent the whites from being wasted). There’s also a debate about what kind of alcohol to add – rum, brandy, marsala, or whatever – and how much (I like mine boozy, but that could also be the time period we’re living in). Ina Garten and Giada De Laurentiis prefer dark rum, while Nigella Lawson has used anything and everything from Bailey’s to Frangelico. The mother of a friend who emigrated from Italy in the 1970s uses Kahlua, while New York chef Contra and Wildair Fabian von Hauske adds bitter amaro to hers.
Scale and get a printable recipe here.
“I found the unpopularity of the dessert to be part of the appeal,” von Hauske told me, “and I wanted to eat something that reminded me of my childhood.” He prefers to use a firmer sponge cake and makes portions to order, but agrees that it’s a dessert that does especially well when left to sit so the flavors blend together.
Centrolina’s pastry chef, Caitlin Dysart, has found dessert to suit our time.
“We were hesitant to put it on the menu because people expect that from an Italian restaurant, and it was a cliché, when we wanted to explore a wide variety of Italian cuisine,” said the Washington-based chef. “But we’ve done a lot since Covid, when we switched to take out only. It travels and keeps very well. I have found that people really go for these comfort foods and love them.
As for the longevity of tiramisu, Dysart believes it has stood the test of time because, if done right, it is both stylish and heartwarming.
“I still think I don’t like it,” she said, “then eat a piece of it and I really like it.
Through trial and error, I found my favorite version. I thin out the mascarpone-yellow mixture with beaten egg whites and just a touch of whipped cream. I recompose the sugar and lightly dip lady’s fingers in a strong, bitter espresso-rum concoction to cut through the richness of dairy and eggs and balance the sweetness. While some prefer to dip the savoiardi in coffee, I prefer a moistened cookie that retains its texture alongside the creamy layers, which makes me want to eat bite after bite.
Of all the liquors I have tried dark rum turned out to be the best complement, tempering the sweetness and adding nice toffee notes to the coffee. I end it with a flourish: sweet and sour chocolate shavings, although I also like to use high quality unsweetened cocoa powder.
Then I have to patiently wait for my tiramisu to take – which just might be the hardest part of making this dessert.
Dessert can be prepared in a pan and then portioned on the table, or layered into single serving dessert dishes.
Storage room: Tiramisu can be stored in an airtight container for up to 4 days in the refrigerator or up to 3 months in the freezer.
Go forward: Tiramisu should be prepared at least 6 hours and preferably overnight before serving.
Or buy: Mascarpone, an Italian soft cheese, and lady’s finger cookies can be found in well-stocked supermarkets or Italian grocery stores.
2 cups (480 milliliters) strong coffee / espresso, at room temperature
1/2 to 3/4 cup (120 to 180 milliliters) dark rum (can substitute for brandy, if you prefer)
4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups (500 grams) mascarpone, from two containers (8 ounces / 225 grams)
1/2 cup (120 milliliters) heavy cream
Approximately 48 lady’s fingers (savoiardi), from two packs (7 ounces / 200 grams)
Shaved bittersweet chocolate, for garnish
In a large, shallow bowl, combine the coffee with rum or brandy and set aside.
In large bowl, using hand mixer on medium-high speed, beat yolks with sugar and salt until pale and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the mascarpone and beat on medium-high speed until combined and puffed.
In medium bowl, using hand mixer on high speed, beat heavy cream until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes. Gently fold the whipped cream into the mascarpone-yellow mixture.
In another medium bowl, using a hand mixer on low speed and gradually increasing to high, beat egg whites until soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Gently fold the egg whites into the mascarpone-yolk mixture until well blended.
Dip each lady’s finger in the coffee mixture for a few seconds and line the bottom of a 9 x 12 x 2 inch pan. Repeat with more lady’s fingers to form a single layer at the bottom of the pan.
Distribute half of the mascarpone mixture evenly on top. Repeat with the remaining lady’s fingers and the mascarpone mixture. Smooth the top and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and preferably overnight.
When ready to serve, generously sprinkle the top with the chocolate shavings, then slice and plate. Serve cold or chilled.
Recipe by Olga Massov.
Tested by Olga Massov; send questions to [email protected].
Scale and get a printable version of the recipe here.
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More no-bake desserts from Voraciously:
Rainbow Sprinkle Frozen Cake
Banana Sundae Pie
Chocolate cream pie
Calories: 355; Total fat: 17 g; Saturated fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 196 mg; Sodium: 128 mg; Carbohydrates: 36 g; Dietary fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 9 g; Protein: 8 g.