There are probably people who will shoot daggers my way for saying this, but tiramisu has never been one of my favorite desserts. In fact, I think I’ve ordered it just once before in a restaurant. I do recall enjoying it quite a bit, although it’s not something I will choose over another dessert unless the only other choices are things like flan and ice cream. I’m much more the apple pie, chocolate cake, bread pudding, chocolate chip cookie type of girl. You know, a good ole American gal. Of course, I do enjoy other delicious sweets like tarte tatin, plum crostada, crème brûlé, key lime pie, etc etc. However, tiramisu usually just does not float my boat. Go ahead – shoot me.
So, when my dear friend Renee and I were taking suggestions for our next throwdown dessert, ideas from my coworkers included tiramisu and carrot cake. Renee and I decided the latter would be better for October – carrot cake being a fall-type dessert – and that tiramisu would be more apropos while it’s still relatively warm out. Begrudgingly I agreed. Underscore begrudgingly, although I kept my feelings secret. Outwardly, I attacked the challenge with gusto! Hey, if nothing else it’s an opportunity to figure out how to make something new, right? And that’s the whole point of these throwdowns, in my opinion….
And so I embarked on my recipe research: cookbooks, online searches, inquiries to my mom (no help there – what was I thinking, asking someone with English and German heritage??). All the recipes I found – and especially all those reviewed as “ooh ooh, this is so much like my Italian grandmother’s tiramisu” – were very similar. Basically, whip egg whites, then separately whip up the yolks (with varying proportions of whites to yolks) with usually two cups of mascarpone cheese and a wee bit of white sugar. Some recipes, those most loyal to Italy, included a dash of Marsala wine in the yolk mixture, but I’m not a fan of Marsala so I decided I could safely skip it. Anyway, the two mixes are folded together and voilà (presto?!): we have ourselves a zabaglione! Soak some crisp ladyfinger (Savoiardi) cookies in an espresso/alcohol mixture (Kahlua, rum, whatever), layer it up, and top with cocoa and shaved bittersweet chocolate. Actually, the whole process sounded easy; and here for years I was under the impression tiramisu is a very difficult dish to make!
With a final recipe chosen (from my Mediterranean Foods of the Sun cookbook, trusty as ever), I decided to throw together a practice round on Labor Day weekend for my guinea pigs parents. Naturally, they obliged…. And as it turned out, it was very easy! The whole procedure took about an hour, not including the time it took to brew a very strong 3/4 cup of espresso using my mom’s nonintuitive stove top espresso pot thingie. The only steps I was careful about was to soften the mascarpone cheese enough – achieved by whipping it with a hand mixer – and to dip the ladyfingers for only 3-5 seconds each side, per most recipes’ instructions (to prevent sogginess in the final product). I used Stella d’Or ladyfingers, which turned out to have a slightly off coconut note to them; try to find more benignly-flavored imported Savoiardi cookies if you can.
The tiramisu turned out deliciously, thankfully. My mom especially was very happy I left the remainders with them when I drove home on Monday night. No sweat off my hips! My only complaint – and lesson for Thursday’s throwdown – was that I needed to soak the ladyfingers for a bit longer, maybe up to 10 seconds per side – because the espresso flavor just wasn’t strong enough and the cookies were a tad dry in the center. However, the flavor was great and the texture airy. Honestly, I was on the road to tiramisu conversion; this was a two-step program – easy peasy!
Fast forward to Thursday. The throwdown was thrown and … I lost. Yes, I lost. It wasn’t for lack of a delicious, authentic recipe complete with fresh ingredients, stellar execution, and high quality Schaffenburg bittersweet chocolate curls atop the dish – but still, I lost. Unfortunately, I lost to an English-custard-and-spongy-cookie interpretation of the dish – which my 100% Italian boss and 100%-Cuban-but-wannabe-Italian older coworker pronounced as “how tiramisu should be”. I’m happy for Renee (our records are now officially tied in throwdowns again!) but disappointed at not knocking it out of the park this time. Really, I thought I would. Now, I’m no expert at making tiramisu – yet – but I really thought I had something good. Back to the drawing board? I do recall reading someplace that you can use a bain-marie to cook the yolks and replace the egg whites with whipped cream; perhaps that would be more palatable to the non-traditional folk?
Oh well – here’s the recipe anyway. I promise you will like it. I promise.
Tiramisu, My Way (adapted from Mediterranean Foods of the Sun)
- 3 eggs, separated and at room temperature
- 2 cups mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
- 1 Tbsp white sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup strong espresso, cooled
- 1/2 cup Kahlua liqueur
- 1 package crisp ladyfinger cookies (about 30)
- cocoa for dusting (I liked the flavor of Hersey’s Special Dark here)
- bittersweet chocolate, tiny curls
Find yourself a good serving dish. I like a glass dish so I can see the layers; an 8×8, 9×9, or 6×10 (yes, it does exist – thank you, IKEA) will all do fine. Brew the espresso and mix with the alcohol in a small bowl; warning: you will have extra of this.
Start the zabaglione by whipping the egg whites in a clean bowl until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl, whip the mascarpone cheese until it’s soft and pliable; you want it to incorporate well with the egg whites later. Add the egg yolks to the cheese and beat until combined, then add the vanilla and sugar. Feel free to throw in the tiniest dash of salt if you like. Fold the egg whites into the cheese-yolk mixture until just combined. Spoon a bit of the mixture into the bottom of the serving dish, just enough to barely cover the bottom.
Dip the ladyfingers, working with one or two at a time, into the espresso mixture – no more than 10 seconds per side! Lay them side by side in the dish to form a single layer; you don’t have to squish them in, but they can touch. Spoon half of the zabaglione mixture over the ladyfingers, using a spatula to spread it around the sides as well. Dip the remaining ladyfingers in the espresso and make a second cookie layer in the dish. Top with the rest of the zabaglione. Using a fine mesh sieve, dust the top with cocoa powder, then shave chocolate curls over this (not too much!). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least six hours or overnight. Serve after bringing the dish to almost room temperature.