Italian Table Talk: Tiramisu for a celebration
It’s crept up on us so quickly – one year of Italian Table Talk, the blog posts that once a month create a flurry of emails deciding themes, topics, recipes, often starting with, What are you making? and resulting in dishes and their stories as told by four girls with different perspectives but the same passion for sharing experiences, the traditions, the rituals of real Italian cuisine.
It all started with bread, as I like to think any Italian meal does. And then it just flowed naturally on to various topics that permeate Italian culture like the aroma of someone cooking your favourite dish wafting through the house. We discussed street food, summer preserves, the wine harvest, the olive harvest, spring foraging, salumi, breakfast and those essential Italian holidays like Ognissanti, Christmas, Carnival and Easter.
And here we are, exactly a year on from that first, experimental post about bread and what could be more appropriate than the theme of celebration? Whether it’s an anniversary, a holiday or simply a family get together (excuse enough to celebrate), there is one thing that is ubiquitous on my Tuscan in laws’ family table: tiramisu.
As essential as tiramisu is, it’s something I realise I’ve avoided talking about on my blog (well, almost, here I disguised it as a pavlova and here I almost made a strawberry tiramisu but was too busy licking the bowl of the mascarpone cream). Perhaps because it’s not exactly Tuscan (though believe me, no Tuscan is going to complain about that, perhaps because it’s a given. Done over and over again. Seen everywhere. Or because there are only so many tiramisu recipes one can have – and if you ask me, there is really only one way to make tiramisu. Yes, this is one of those recipes. This is the same tiramisu recipe that I have been making since I was sixteen. It was given to me by a neighbour from Mauritius when I was living in Beijing. Hardly authentic, you might be thinking. But believe me. It is. It’s so authentic, my Tuscan mother in law has asked me for the recipe. I’m not sure where my neighbour got her recipe but she did live in Rome before moving to China so there’s probably another story there, tracing back the origin of this recipe before it travelled the world.
That is the thing about tiramisu – it’s international appeal. It is a recipe that has successfully been transported not only all across the peninsula but all across the globe, that is seemingly loved by all palates and cultures and has been adopted into restaurants and homes worldwide. And all this for a dish that is only fifty years old. Sure, it’s been called a variant of the zuppa inglese (literally, “English soup”), that trifle-like dessert tinted pink in Alchermes, so popular in the nineteenth century. But the dessert that we know as tiramisu – layers of savoiardi (also known as lady finger) biscuits, dipped in coffee or rum or both, covered with a thick mascarpone cream and topped with cocoa – was born a Venetian dessert, in Treviso, circa 1960.
Even then there were already elements that you could say contributed to its cross-regional (and continental) success. The biscuits, savoiardi, come from a region that historically was a part of France but today are largely produced in the Veneto, Verona to be exact. Mascarpone, vital to the rich creaminess of the dish, is a typical fresh cheese from the region of Lombardy. Yet stories also abound of the dessert’s origins coming from Siena and Torino. An older, traditional dish, would never have this regional mix of ingredients but strictly those of local production.
It’s a very simple recipe that requires very little effort and only the patience of allowing some time between assembling it and eating it for that perfect moment that allows the mingling of flavours and the softening of biscuits. Perfect, really, for a busy cook preparing for a celebration as this can be made the night before. The original versions did not include alcohol as this was also a favourite children’s dessert (obviously nobody thought twice about the caffeine hit but it is the lesser of two evils in this case) and, despite the stick-form of the biscuits (and how they annoyingly never snap where you want them to), tiramisu was round rather than rectangular. Who knows, perhaps it was the only tin the inventor of tiramisu had? Perhaps it’s because in many ways it is a distant, modern cousin of the trifle and the round form was an obvious step. In any case, in honour of those very first tiramisu, unknowing of the fame they would achieve worldwide, and inspired by this photo I found on pinterest, I’ve made this one round too. But at home, in Tuscany, a glass, rectangular pyrex dish would do just fine.
- 3 very fresh eggs
- 150 gr sugar
- 500 gr mascarpone
- 500 gr savoiardi (lady finger) biscuits
- 100 ml strong, black coffee
- Powdered cocoa, unsweetened
To make the mascarpone cream, separate the yolks and the whites into two medium to large sized bowls. Whip the yolks with the sugar until you have a dense, creamy and pale mixture. Add the mascarpone until combined. Whisk the egg whites (make sure you use a very clean bowl, glass or metal is best, and very clean beaters to quickly get beautifully stiff whites) until you have stiff peaks that hold their shape even when you turn the bowl upside down. Fold the whites into the mascarpone mixture. Set aside, and if not using straight away, store covered in the fridge.
If making a round, cake-like tiramisu, line the edge of a spring form pan with baking paper. No need to do anything if using a glass dish.
Make a fresh pot of strong, black coffee and pour into a wide bowl. Dip one side quickly and one side only of a lady finger biscuit into the coffee and layer, coffee side up in your prepared tin. Repeat with more biscuits until you have a nice, tight layer that covers the base of the tin. Failure to do exactly this will result in disappointingly soggy tiramisu. No one likes soggy tiramisu. Cover the lady fingers with a thick layer of mascarpone cream, about 1cm thick. Repeat layering with lady fingers then cream again, finishing with a thick layer of cream.
Leave in the fridge overnight (or for at least four hours if you are in a hurry but this really benefits a longer wait), covered with some plastic wrap. Dust with plenty of bitter cocoa, then cut, serve and enjoy.
Back to a few thoughts on Italian Table Talk’s one year birthday. It’s only taken us a year to finally create a Facebook page for Italian Table Talk, where our readers can share their thoughts, ideas and even recipes – if you’ve enjoyed this series of ours as much as we have writing and planning it, please do stop by to “like” us and say hello! And because this is our one year anniversary and the whole idea behind creating Italian Table Talk was to share, discuss and connect, allow me tell you a little bit about the other three bloggers, who you may already know by now.
You have probably already heard me mention Giulia Scarpaleggia, author of Juls’ Kitchen, in the early days with the tiramilova (that would be a tiramisu inside a pavlova) or fava bean crostini, or more recently with her pappa al pomodoro, a favourite recipe from her beautiful cookbook, I Love Toscana. We “met” over social media a couple of years ago, as such is the way these days, but when I accepted her invitation to meet up in person for dinner in Florence, with many other dinners and catch ups to follow, I never expected to make such a warm, wonderful friend. With so much in common (not the least being our Tuscan-driven food blogs) we clicked and immediately started a never-ending list of things, projects and food to make together. The only thing that was ever in our way was geography (admittedly, the distance between Florence and her gorgeous home in the Tuscan countryside near Colle Val d’Elsa is a lot shorter than the distance we have between us now!), but we still chat and plan and add to that list as if we live around the corner from each other. Check out Giulia’s celebratory recipe for latte alla portoghese, a sort of creme caramel.
Meanwhile, I met Valeria Necchio, photographer and blogger behind My Life Love Food at a workshop in Tuscany a couple of years ago and as we followed each others’ blogs and social media I kept finding that despite the years between us (can you believe this girl is only 25?!) and also that geographical problem, we are two peas in a pod. She appreciates and loves simple, good food; her dream home is exactly what my dream home looks like; she also needs a substantial breakfast to get her through the day; as an expat she understands exactly what conflict my heart is going through and as a Venetian knows about the problems with living in a place that is everyone else’s fairytale. Her blog is one of those few that I read religiously because every word resonates with me (and her pinboards are also the best food photography reference ever, how organised is this girl?). Here’s how Valeria celebrates Italian Table Talk’s first birthday: with a spritz. So Venetian.
I also met Jasmine Guetta, half of the duo behind Milan-based blog, Labna, at the same workshop as Valeria and similarly got to know her better afterwards, and in particular when we began Italian Table Talk. Another incredibly young and talented blogger, I’ve always been intrigued by her take on traditional Jewish recipes, something that is unique amongst so many food blogs out there, and admired her careful, precise photography. For her celebration, Jasmine shares her recipe for tuna pate, a nostalgic classic.
The fact that these three girls all write their blogs in both perfect English and Italian is nothing short of astounding if you ask me! The discussions, the questions and the sharing of recipes that are created every month between them and all our readers is one of the things I most enjoy about blogging. Thank you girls for the inspiring Italian Table Talk journey so far, I look forward to many more to come. Now, let’s have a slice of tiramisu…