Dan returned from Japan this week, and his only request for his first meal home was something non Asian. Of course, this meant an Italian dinner was in order, and we whipped up some of his favorites: a slow-simmered Bolognese, and another classic, tiramisu.
Clara spent a year studying the art of food – ahem – semiotics, in Bologna, in the food-famous region of Emilia-Romagna. There, tiramisu was but an after-thought, overshadowed by dishes made with syrupy balsamic vinegar di Modena, succulent prosciutto di Parma, homemade tortellini di Bologna proper and dense, dark Bolognese chocolate that found its way in to most desserts and beverages. It was an afterthought, that is, for everyone except her Sardinian compagna di stanza, who made tiramisu…almost every day. Paula was scared silly of raw eggs (some grandmother’s effective and unnecessary campaign in a land of truly farm-fresh eggs!) and refused to make hers with the customary 3-4. Instead, she would lighten the mascarpone with some cream and a vigorous hand beating, and you’d never know your silky dessert was missing an otherwise key ingredient. To this day it’s still the best version we’ve had.
This iconic, boozy dessert is, in this iteration, elegant and deceptively easy. A few excellent ingredients and a taste memory of your favorite tiramisu is enough to make something epic. The recipe that follows is more of a guide; we never measure too closely, but rely, rather, on taste. Tiramisu is all about balancing flavors and textures: the ladyfingers shouldn’t be so soggy they fall apart, but too dry and they turn to cotton in one’s mouth; the espresso should be strong, but not bitter; the rum complex, but not tasting too much of vanilla.
We always find tiramisu tastes best when it’s very cold, and often make it the night before to give it adequate time in the fridge. It’s fun to make individual portions, as we did here, or lay it out in a glass baking dish as you go. If your cream is not too runny, and your ladyfingers not too wet, you can also construct your tiramisu on a serving plate without sides, or in a too-large baking dish. And really, it’s endlessly variable…just add a little bit more of everything until you have enough!
enough for four generous servings
16 ounces mascarpone cheese
6 + tbs cream or whole milk
8 + tbs sugar
1 ts vanilla extract
savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers) – in this version, we used about 20
2 cups strong, freshly brewed espresso
unsweetened cocoa powder or dark chocolate, grated finely
1. Using a wooden spoon, mix together the mascarpone, cream (or milk) and vanilla. Continue to add cream (or milk) until the consistency is to your liking. You don’t want this mixture to be too heavy, or a day in the fridge will render it solid. Too thin, on the other hand, and it won’t hold up to serving.
2. Switch to a whisk, and add sugar little by little, until it’s sweetened to your taste.
3. Brew some good espresso. We’re partial to the stove-top variety:
4. Add rum and sugar to taste. (We like ours boozy, to be honest, but not too sweet, and added about 3 tbs of rum and 2 tbs of sugar.)
5. Soak the savoiardi biscuits (one or two at a time) in the coffee mixture. We like ours fairly wet, but they shouldn’t fall apart and turn to mush when you pick them up. When the coffee is still very hot, it will only take three seconds or so for the ladyfingers to absorb enough coffee. Lay down the first layer of ladyfingers. (If you’re making individual servings, you might have to break the ladyfingers in half first before soaking them.)
6. Spoon about half of the mascarpone mixture over this first layer of ladyfingers, and top with a generous sprinkling of cocoa powder or grated chocolate.
7. Repeat #5 & #6, adding a second layer of ladyfingers, mascarpone and cocoa or chocolate. In small glasses, and with this amount of ingredients, we normally do two layers. Of course, you can continue to add layers and portions until you’ve made your perfect tiramisu!
8. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until you’re ready to enjoy.