For lovers of all things quintessentially Italian it may come as a surprise that tiramisu is a scrumptious dessert with relatively recent origins… and murky ones at that! Open the pages of an old Italian cookbook in your library and you’ll find no tiramisu there. There is no documented mention of this fine dessert before 1983 when the first edition of I Dolci del Veneto (The Desserts of Veneto) was published, containing a classic tiramisu recipe. The definitive word on the origin of tiramisu, however, appears to come from a book published in 1998 by Fernando e Tina Raris, La Marca Gastronomica, a publication focused exclusively on the cuisine from the town of Treviso. The authors remember what was written in an article by Giuseppe Maffioli in 1981: “Tiramisu’ was born recently, just 10 years ago in the town of Treviso. It was proposed for the first time in the restaurant Le Beccherie. The dessert and its name became immediately extremely popular, and this cake and the name were copied by many restaurants first in Treviso then all around Italy.” The restaurant Le Beccherie continues to make to this day the dessert with the classical recipe: ladyfingers soaked in strong espresso coffee, mascarpone – zabaglione cream and bitter cocoa powder. The brilliance of tiramisu is not in the technique of layering but rather in its components.
The origins of the word tiramisu come from two Italian words that literally mean pull me up or pick me up. The Italians have long been aware of the buzz-inducing properties associated with the combination of espresso and sugar, hence the name. In the original recipe there was no liquor as the cake, round in shape, is said to have been aimed at children and the elderly. Tiramisu is also thought to mean pick me up to heaven due to its exquisite taste. I couldn’t agree more!
The use of mascarpone, a triple-creme cheese made from the milk of cows that have been fed special grasses filled with herbs and flowers, is a recent derivation from the original custard. The basic ingredients are eggs, mascarpone cheese, ladyfingers(known in Italy as savoiardi – small, sweet and fairly dry finger-shaped sponge cakes), cream, espresso coffee, liquor (brandy, marsala and rum are frequently used), sugar and cocoa or shaved chocolate.
The American popularity of tiramisu first arose in San Francisco and I was introduced to it nearly 20 years ago when Dayton served his version of this exquisite dessert in his restaurant here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since we are both lovers of chocolate we use as the foundation for our tiramisu a chocolate sponge, or biscuit au cocolat, that eagerly soaks up all of the delicious liquid laced with strong espresso and liquor without falling apart. I made one of these to crown this past New Year’s Eve dinner with friends. We truly were picked up to heaven as we concluded our evening of dining that holiday night!
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a half sheet pan and line with parchment, then butter the parchment as well. For the chocolate sponge warm in a bain marie to 110 degrees, stirring with a whisk:
9 large eggs
2 C (12 1/2-oz) sugar
When eggs and sugar mixture have reached the desired temperature transfer to a mixing bowl and whip briskly 15 – 20 minutes until cold:
3 1/2 C (11 1/2-oz) sifted cake flour
1/2 C (1 1/2-oz) cocoa powder
Gently fold the sifted ingredients into the egg mixture by hand:
Transfer the batter to the prepared sheet pan:
Bake for 30 – 35 minutes or until the cake springs back in the center to the touch. Cool completely on a wire rack:
Using the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan as a template cut out two chocolate sponge circles:
Using a paring knife and a pastry brush gently crumb both circles:
Set the crumbed cakes to the side and prepare the espresso syrup.
Combine in a medium-sized saucepan over moderately high heat and bring to a boil, then remove from heat and cool:
2/3 C baker’s sugar
1/2 C water
While the sugar syrup is cooling heat for 2 minutes on high in the microwave:
1 C water
To the heated water add and stir:
4 generous tsp instant espresso coffee powder
Cool the espresso and pour it into the sugar syrup. Add:
1/4 C Frangelico
1/4 C coffee flavored brandy
Set the espresso syrup to the side and prepare the zabaglione filling.
In the stainless steel bowl of an electric mixer, or another heat-proof bowl, whisk together:
6 large egg yolks
2/3 C baker’s sugar
2/3 C sweet Marsala (we recommend Florio)
Whisk over simmering water until the temperature of the mixture has reached 140 degrees and the filling has begun to thicken. Remove from the heat and briskly whisk in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whip attachment until cold, approximately 15 – 20 minutes:
While the zabaglione is being whisked and cooled whip till light and fluffy:
16-oz mascarpone cheese
Gently fold the mascarpone into the cooled zagablione:
Whip then gently fold into the zabaglione and mascarpone mixture:
1 1/3 C heavy cream
Carefully cut each round of chocolate sponge in half to provide four thin cake layers for the tiramisu. This is not difficult to do as the cake has great structure and is easy with which to work:
Place one layer of chocolate sponge on the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan covered with parchment and brush 1/4 of the espresso syrup evenly over the surface of the biscuit:
Cover the biscuit with 1/3 of the zabaglione filling:
Repeat this process for the remaining layers. The 4th layer of biscuit will be covered with whipped cream rather than additional zabaglione filling. Whip:
1 C heavy whipping cream
4 T confectioner’s sugar
Spread the whipped cream evenly over the top layer. Dust with:
sweet ground chocolate (Ghirardelli is highly recommended!)
Cover and refrigerate until service. Remove the springform, dust once again with chocolate and serve in wedges.
This is not a presentation cake so don’t be concerned about the lack of decoration around its circumference. Its striking presentation is in the beautiful layering once it is cut. Should you choose, however, the sides of the tiramisu could be frosted with additional whipped cream once is it removed from the springform pan.
Serve generous wedges and be prepared, as we were, to be picked up to heaven… because you will be… Bon Appetit!
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