Let me start by saying two things. The alternate title for this post, had the results been different, was Tiramisoup. Secondly, I don’t like Tiramisu. I have never believed that anyone actually does. I think that, when the old Italian waiter is describing the desserts and he says “and of course, we have our homemade TIRAMISU” and everyone “ahhhhs” and groans with pleasure, they’re lying. I never ahhhh or groan with pleasure or even pretend to be tempted. I’m just relieved. It’s another decision I don’t have make, because really, what is there to like about mushy cake, floofy cheese-ish something, and not enough chocolate to make it a real chocolate dessert?
I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’ve given up. I don’t need this overrated dessert. I’ll get my calories from that second glass of wine, thankyouverymuch.
So why am I writing about Tiramisu? Have I have I finally decided to conquer my fear of texture-challenged desserts by making my own, following the same path as hot-air ballooning, camel rides and SCUBA diving?
In a manner of speaking, yes. But really, I was planning a special dinner with an Italian theme, and when it came time to select the classic, perfect Italian dessert, this little “Tiramisu” light kept blinking off and on in my periphery. I tried to ignore it. I would make a vermouth saboyan with berries and crushed pistachios. I would brew a nice pot of Italian roast and serve it with biscotti and Almond Roca. At the end of the day, though, I took it as a personal affront that a dessert I should love was one I did not. I decided I was going to win this one.
I figured I had a couple things on my side for a victory. One, I would be making it fresh. Tiramisu from a bakery or at a restaurant has to have been sitting around all day, defiantly getting soggier and soggier, right? I postulated that there would be a peak serving time and I was going to nail it.
Two, I would be controlling the quality of the ingredients. This weapon would be made possible by a visit to Epicure Imports, a specialty foods distributor in North Hollywood that holds an open-to-the-public warehouse sale every couple of months. My weirdo schedule has caused me to miss the last six sales, but I had a purpose and nothing would stand in my way.
A gourmet foods warehouse. The very words gave me palpitations and the reality of it was just as devastating. Imagine Smart ‘n’ Final, but instead of off-brand soda and 10 pound tubs of Folgers, there are aisles of aged balsamic vinegars, clochettes of French cheese, rows of Italian salamis, bags of Valrhona féves, and everything that can or should be infused with truffles.
And stuff like this, that you didn’t know you needed, but my wheels are spinning:
And who does not need a 3.5 lb. bucket of Maldon sea salt? Truthfully, I already have enough exotic finishing salts to season fifteen years worth of meals. But I didn’t have Maldon SMOKED salt, and now a little wax bag of oaky, copper crystals sits poised in my kitchen, waiting to adorn a beautifully seared ribeye or an heirloom tomato salad.
Into my cart went a tube of imported tomato paste (for the Tuscan Farmer’s chicken that would be my main course for dinner), a bottle of Sparrow Lane pear vinegar (which is going to be so nice on a salad with walnut oil), my Favorite Mustard of All Time, Edmond Fallot Tarragon Dijon (I’ve been looking for it for YEARS), a crock of their sweet and vinegary whole grain mustard (the best I’ve had), jars of tart cornichons and tiny green Arbequina olives, Dalmatia tapenade, truffle pate, a paper-wrapped sopresatta, some beautiful cheeses and a nice baguette to bring it all together.
Two hours and $200 later, I walked out with a whetted appetite (they offer generous samples of their oils, cheeses, chocolates and charcuterie), staples for my expanding pantry, the ingredients for a fine antipasti, the makings of a gourmet birthday gift basket (for sister-in-law, Jane), and my snack for the evening:
I was also armed with two tubs of Gelmini “Cinque Stella” Mascarpone and a ginormous bag of Bonomi ladyfingers. If I couldn’t create the quintessential Tiramisu with the ideal primary components, I would probably be a hopeless cause.
My Tiramisu endeavor was the subject of conversation at a party the night before my dinner, when the question of Mother’s Day activities arose.
I would be making my mother an Italian meal, with homemade Tiramisu for dessert. OHHHHH, Tiramisu…was the reply. Really? What was I MISSING? Maybe my frustration was really deeper seated, another thing I felt I was lacking — the Tiramisu appreciation gene. I decided I would talk to my therapist about it. But it made me more determined to make The Perfect Tiramisu, because that would mean I wasn’t deficient, I’d just been eating inferior desserts. And I also decided to still talk to my therapist about it.
At the party I got what sounded like good advice: “It’s all in how you roll the ladyfingers,” one woman said. It’s a quick dip, not a long soak. “You have to account for expansion,” another told me. So don’t pack them in there — I suppose to give the perfect proportion of cake to cream.
I planned on looking for a “best Tiramisu” recipe online, but decided to go with the simple, spare instructions on the bag of ladyfingers. Six ingredients: Ladyfingers, Mascarpone, strong coffee, sugar, eggs and bitter cocoa for dusting.
The recipe called for first blending the egg yolks and sugar, followed by whipping the egg whites. I have a neurosis about spoiling my egg whites with the inevitable, elusive speck of fat, so I whipped my whites first. Next time, (Did you catch that? That’s called foreshadowing) I’ll trust myself to clean the beaters well enough and beat the whites just before the folding — holding the whipped whites turned them slightly watery. I left the discarded liquid in the bowl, and the end result didn’t seem to be affected.
The next step was to “gently mix” the mascarpone into the yolk/sugar blend, which I started by hand, then realized I would never get the lumps out. I used the lowest setting on my hand mixer which smoothed the blend into a buttery yellow base. I folded in the whites without making a “sacrifice,” but the final cream was still light and ridiculously delectable. I WAS deficient if I couldn’t come to love this dessert. The golden zabaglione of eggs, sugar and mascarpone had the exact ratio of fat to sweet to mouth feel that makes me a ravenous dessert zombie. I licked the bowl, beaters and spatula. Maybe there was hope for me after all.
Next came the assembly. Traditionally, espresso is used to soak the ladyfingers, but I’m addicted to Starbucks’ Cafe Verona, and since it is an Italian roast, I figured that wouldn’t damage the authenticity. I also used decaf, so maybe I lost points there (Tiramisu literally means “pick-me-up,” the caffeine being an important component of that description). But I already had reasons enough to dislike Tiramisu. I didn’t want insomnia to be added to the list.
Assembling the layers of oblong ladyfingers into a round bowl was a minor engineering challenge, but easily overcome. I was mildly alarmed at the slightly soupy consistency of the cream, but hoped the four hour chilling would make the custard set.
The bitter cocoa powder that I’d hoped to find at Epicure never materialized, but that was likely due to my state of overwhelm in the cheese cooler. I used…Hershey’s. Next time (!) I’ll seek out Valrhona cocoa, but the Hershey’s was perfectly fine.
Until I was licking the beaters, which I always recall too late can be a risky behavior, I hadn’t fully realized that Tiramisu — at least this recipe — was full of raw eggs. I did use scrupulously fresh eggs from a reliable supplier, but it’s something to consider. It actually made me wonder if this is the factor that’s made the Tiramisus I’ve tried so un-delicious — perhaps restaurants and bakeries are required to cook or pasteurize their eggs? Further research will be needed.
400g “Forno Bonomi” Ladyfingers
500g Mascarpone cheese
300ml Strong coffee, at room temperature
4 Eggs, separated
Bitter cocoa for dusting
Using a hand mixer, combine egg yolks and sugar until pale yellow and well blended
In a separate, large bowl, with clean beaters, whip the egg whites until soft peaks form
Using hand mixer on low speed, combine the mascarpone with the egg/sugar mix until smooth
With a spatula, stir 1/2 cup of egg whites into the egg/sugar/mascarpone mix to lighten, then gently fold into the remainder of the beaten egg whites, being careful not to deflate them
Pour the coffee into a pie plate and gently roll the ladyfingers to soak just the surface, then layer into a deep, round bowl
Spoon a layer of the mascarpone mixture on top of the ladyfingers. Continue assembly, ending with a layer of mascarpone
Dust the top with cocoa powder and refrigerate at least 4 hours to set and let the flavors combine
Eat it out of the bowl, or, if you’re feeling generous, serve in big, heaping spoonfuls to your appreciative dinner guests (up to 8, or 4, if they’re like me)
Once the decadent concoction made it into the fridge and I took care of the crime scene that my kitchen tends to become while baking, the day of family and food was lovely and luxurious. There were several windows of eating and drinking — platters of antipasti, bottles of champagne and red wine, a dinner of Tuscan chicken and a zucchini tian with tomatoes, Kalamata olives and goat cheese, and finally, though we scarcely had room, dessert.
It was…WOW. It was Tiramisuper. The cream had set up perfectly and was rich but still light, the ladyfingers were nicely textured and added a deep coffee flavor without being too sweet, the dusting of cocoa added the perfect touch of mocha. Everyone loved it, Jane declared it the best she’d ever eaten, and I, well, I had seconds.
I’m positive that the fresh, quality ingredients and a light hand with the coffee played a big part in the successful outcome, but I believe I got lucky and stumbled upon the perfect recipe. In my subsequent research, I’ve seen some things I’d like to try — the addition of spirits (rum? Marsala? BAILEY’S?), toppings of chocolate curls or shavings, but I’ve not seen the addition of whipped egg whites, and that might have been the key to the perfect light texture of this often too rich dessert.
So it’s a victory, but a Pyrrhic one. Now not only will I be experimenting with my own recipes, I will be compelled to try Tiramisu everywhere I go, if only to declare that “mine is better.” This is going to require me to add another hour of exercise into my schedule, or to perform yet another purge and re-stock of jeans.
And there’s always the problem of leftovers.