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 when they want to celebrate: tiramisu.
If you ask me, there is really only one way to make tiramisu – this perfect proportion of eggs, sugar, mascarpone; strong coffee; savoiardi biscuits (not Pavesini, which my Tuscan mother in law is a fan of, they are too thin and soak up the coffee too much – speaking of this, just a swift dip of the biscuit is enough, too much and these too get soggy); unsweetened cocoa powder. 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, who in turn had lived in Rome. A tiramisu recipe via China may be hardly authentic, you might be thinking. But believe me, it is. The proof is that my mother in law has asked me for the recipe.
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 an incredibly simple recipe that requires very little effort and only the patience of allowing some time between assembling it and eating it. Perfect for a busy cook preparing for a celebratory meal since this can and should be made the night before.
The original tiramisu did not include alcohol as this was also a favourite children’s dessert (obviously nobody thought twice about the caffeine hit and even my in law’s don’t bat an eyelid about kids eating caffeinated tiramisu but it is the lesser of two evils in this case) and, despite the stick-form of the biscuits, tiramisu was round rather than rectangular. Perhaps it’s because in many ways it is a distant, modern cousin of the trifle-ish zuppa inglese and the round form was an obvious step. In honour of that very first tiramisu, 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 packet of savoiardi (lady finger) biscuits
- 100 ml strong, black coffee
- Cocoa powder, 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. In a separate bowl 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. Fold the whites into the mascarpone mixture. Set aside, and if not using straight away, store covered in the fridge.
Make a fresh moka pot of strong, black coffee and pour into a wide bowl. Quickly dip one side and one side only of a savoiardi biscuit into the coffee and layer, coffee side up, in your chosen tin, round or rectangular as it may be. Repeat until you have a nice, tight layer that covers the base of the tin. If you are using a springform cake tin you can get three layers out of this recipe, but a large rectangular dish may allow (height wise for just 2, so note this as you distribute the cream). Cover the lady fingers with a thick layer of mascarpone cream (a third if doing a round one; half if rectangular), it should be at least 1cm thick. Repeat layers, finishing with 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. When ready to serve, dust with plenty of unsweetened cocoa powder.
Note: If you cannot easily find savoiardi, you can easily make them with three ingredients – sugar, eggs and flour, the recipe is here.