I love layering things. Trifle, eggplant parmigiana and lasagna are some of my favourite dishes that require their ingredients to be assembled into layers. Yet, would you believe that until last month that I’d never made Italy’s most ubiquitous (and layered) dessert, tiramisù? Maybe it’s because of its ubiquity that I’d never made it. Just about all restaurants (in Italy and elsewhere) have it on their dessert menus. It’s also a dessert many home cooks here are fond of preparing. I simply didn’t need to make it!
Anyway, after a lifetime of not making tiramisù, I recently got the urge to make it. Unsurprisingly, assembling layers of coffee and liqueur-soaked savoiardi with a mascarpone and egg-based cream turned out to be as enjoyable as preparing my other favourite layered dishes. I also came across two amusing but clearly fanciful legends about the origins of tiramisù that left me wanting to get the real story behind it.
The first legend involves Cosimo III de Medici of Tuscany. His courtesans were said to be fond of a dessert invented in the Grand Duke’s honour in the 17th century. They called it tiramisù or ‘pick me up’ (this is what tiramisù literally means) in reference to their need for energy before performing their duties. The other story is that it was invented in Turin in the mid-19th century for Italy’s first prime minister, Camillo Benso di Cavour. A true gourmand, he would often request this culinary ‘pick me up’ to get him through the often arduous business of governing the newly-unified Italian state.
The evidence available, however, suggests that tiramisù was a much more recent invention. None of the historical Italian cookbooks I consulted – Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Cooking Well, Ada Boni’s Il Talismano della Felicità and Elizabeth David’s Italian Food[i] – include recipes for it. Indeed, it’s highly doubtful that a dessert made with raw eggs would have been appealing before mechanised refrigeration began en masse. Moreover, there is no tradition of mascarpone-making[ii] in neither Tuscany nor Piedmont. Rather, published references (in Italian and English) to the dessert only begin in the 1980s and they generally recognise the city of Treviso in the Veneto region as its birthplace. At this point though, the story takes on a new set of twists and turns with the city’s inhabitants identifying several local restauranteurs, chefs and even a couple of brothel madams as the true inventors of the world’s favourite pick me up[iii]. Intriguing stuff indeed…
- 500 mL percolated or espresso coffee[iv], room temperature
- 1 shot marsala
- 4 fresh organic or free range eggs[v], separated
- 5 tablespoons sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- 300 g mascarpone
- 24 savoiardi biscuits
- Unsweetened cocoa or grated dark chocolate
N.B. I used a glass dish measuring 26 x 18 cm
- Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff white peaks form.
- In a separate bowl, beat yolks and sugar in a large bowl until thick and pale. Add mascarpone and beat in until well combined.
- Fold egg whites into mascarpone mixture gently.
- In a shallow bowl, combine coffee and marsala. Dip a savoiardo biscuit into coffee and marsala mixture for about 3 seconds on both sides. Transfer to glass dish. Repeat procedure with the 11 more savoiardi needed for the dish’s bottom layer.
- Spread half of the mascarpone mixture evenly over savoiardi. Form another layer as described in step 4.
- Spread the remaining half of the mascarpone mixture over the savoiardi.
- Cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.
- Serve with dusted cocoa powder or grated dark chocolate on top.
[i] Published in 1891, 1929 and 1954 respectively.
[ii] Mascarpone is a cheese-like dairy product from the northern Italian region of Lombardy. It is made from cream that has been coagulated by the addition of an acidic substance, such as lemon juice, vinegar, citric acid or acetic acid.
[iii] Check out the following links if you’re interested in what the trevigiani have to say about their most famous culinary export:
[iv] If you’d rather not have a caffeine hit, decaffeinated percolated or espresso coffee works just fine.
[v] Given the fact the eggs are raw, I really recommend using the freshest and best quality you can get!